Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

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Category Archives: 8-8.5/10

Testament of Youth (2015)

Take out the British accents, throw in a cancer subplot, and you have nothing more than a Nicholas Sparks adaptation.

Right before WWI begins, a young woman by the name of Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) lives in on the quiet, comfortable countryside of Britain with her mother (Emily Watson), father (Dominic West), and dear brother Edward (Taron Egerton). Of all the things Vera wants in this world, other than to find a true love that she can spend the rest of her life with, is to go to university, get a job as a writer and make a living for her own-self, rather than sponging off of whatever man she marries and not having her own control over herself. While she remains determined by this pipe-dream, she then sets her sights on a classmate of her brother, Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington). Though he’s a bit of a smarty-pants, there’s something about him that catches Vera off-guard and rather than focusing on her studies, she lets Roland get in the way of everything in her mind. This isn’t such a bad thing considering that young love is always the best love to have, but with WWI looming on the horizon, it definitely puts everything into perspective.

How could you not want to cuddle up with Jon Snow?

How could you not want to cuddle up with Jon Snow?

What’s interesting about Testament of Youth (which may not be a surprise to anyone who’s ever read Brittain’s original, 1933 novel of the same name, is how it starts out as one thing, making you believe it’s going to go exactly where you expect it to, and then, all of a sudden, switch gears. By this, I’m talking about how the movie, initially, seems like it’s just going to be a coming-of-age romance flick about this one young girl growing up during WWI and how much she swoons for her boyfriend, while he’s off fighting in another country. That’s where the movie seemed as if it was heading and while it definitely isn’t the worst way to tell this story, it’s definitely not the most refreshing, either.

But somehow, everything changes about halfway through.

I won’t drop the ball on what the plot-twist in the middle of the flick is, but it changes everything up from being this sappy, almost saccharine romantic-drama, to being something much more dark, deep and, dare I say it, scary. Director James Kent makes several mentions of how the war is tearing Britain up from the inside out; soon though, he actually shows us exactly how it’s doing so, and it’s quite eye-opening. As most anti-war movies tend to be, Testament of Youth doesn’t necessarily hide its message underneath its coat and act as if you didn’t just see it flash you; it knows that you, the viewer, understand that this was is bad and is killing just about every young male left in their damn country.

Once again, though, Kent changes things up in more or less keeping his focus solely on Vera herself and not forgetting that this is, in fact, her story and it deserves to be seen visibly and heard loudly for all to contemplate. See, with Vera, it’s never clear exactly what’s driving her – sure, she wants to go to Oxford and prove to herself that she can handle the studies, but at the same time, it seems like her mind goes elsewhere at points. Though she never makes any previous mention of wanting a man in her life, as soon as she spots this handsome young devil, she all of a sudden can’t keep her act together; she’s stammering and stuttering all over the place, and it’s evidently clear that she wants something with this man.

But why? That’s the real question.

Sure, Vera wants love in her life, as we mostly all do, but what exactly is she going to get out of it? She knows that a war is coming up and that her soon-to-be-boyf will have to go out there on the battlefield and fight the “good” fight, so why does she even bother with it? Surely, she can’t know of the actual outcome of this war and the affect it will have on her boy, right?

Well, that’s what’s so interesting about Vera herself, as well as the movie, is that it keeps us at just a comfortable enough length of space to where we see this character for all that she is, yet, still never fully get her. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that, at the time, Vera herself was so messed-up and traumatized that writing all of this down for the whole world to see was just too much for her own well-being, or maybe not. Either way, there’s no denying that Alicia Vikander is great in this lead role – especially in a year that she seems to be dominating so far.

Better yet, how could you not stop giggling when thinking about him?

Better yet, how could you not stop giggling when thinking about him?

And we’re already through the first-half of the year, and she’s got about five movies left!

Gosh! When does this gal ever slow down?

Anyway, what Vikander does well here is that she finds a common-ground within Vera that makes her strong enough to take care of herself and not worry about what decisions she makes, other than those that she doesn’t make for herself, with the vulnerable side that just wants a man to fall in love and grow old with. She’s never such a hard-case to where it seems like she’s not an actual teenager to begin with, nor is she all that star-struck with the world around her; she’s just the right amount of cynical and innocent, which somehow, totally works for this character.

And of course the rest of the cast is fine, even if not everybody gets as much of a chance to fully stretch out their wings quite like Vikander does. Kit Harrington is charming enough as Roland to make it understandable why a woman would fall so in love with him ever so quickly; Dominic West and Emily Watson are serviceable as the parents that always seem to be there in the background, even if their presences aren’t always fully known; Taron Egerton is good as Vera’s brother that goes off to war and seems like he has no clue what’s going to come next; and Hayley Atwell, despite not having a whole slew of scenes in the final product, does well enough to where she can be remembered.

No matter what though, they’re all left in Vikander’s dust.

Consensus: With a surprising touch of insight, Testament of Youth works as a romance flick, an anti-war movie, and a bio on one woman who didn’t let anyone tell her what her path in life should be, even despite the very progressive time she lived in.

8 / 10

And especially, how could you not want him to go?

And especially, how could you not want him to go? That Jon Snow, I’ll tell ya.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Dope (2015)

Kids, don’t do drugs, or sell them. But definitely listen to A Tribe Called Quest when you get the chance.

High school senior Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is on the verge of graduating, figuring out of his major, getting into a good college, and getting the hell out of Inglewood. Though he will definitely miss his best friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), he knows that this is what he needs to do to survive and make himself a better person, and not just a cliche of what everybody thinks as “the young, black kid in America”. However, all of his dreams and hopes get a bit blindsided when he’s at a party and things get out of hand – drugs are dealt, money is taken, guns are shot, bullets are flying. But, when it’s all over, somehow, Malcolm has a gun and a stash of drugs in his backpack, which seem to have gotten in there deliberately from the local drug-dealer, Dom (A$AP Rocky). Now, Dom wants Malcolm to take the drugs to a place to make sure that he’s able to get out of jail, but now, somebody very threatening wants the drugs, too and now, Dom, has no idea what to do! All he knows now is that he has to rely on both his book, as well as his street smarts to get him out of this terrible situation.

Oh, and of course he's got to be in an ironic punk band!

Oh, and of course he’s got to be in an ironic punk band!

Oh, and it all happens to the back-beat of some sick 90’s hip-hop jams; which, I have to say, is kind of strange considering that this movie, minus a few plot-points here and there, could have easily taken place in said decade. The movie very much feels like it’s trying to be the Boyz N the Hood for the new generation, but at the same time, still seems to be placed in the same time and place as that movie, that it can’t help but feel a tad bit like it’s unoriginal. But that’s the beauty of Dope: On the surface, it seems like you’re average, coming-of-age flick, but it somehow finds smart, interesting ways to spin itself that makes it feel fun, fresh and original, as if this were a story that was just being told to us for the first time, and excluding all of the other times we’ve seen movies about young drug-dealers just trying to survive.

Nope, Dope is something smarter and it wants you to know that, too.

Don’t get me wrong, though, no way in hell is Dope pretentious; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. While it’s a movie that seems to love and appreciate its characters, it still doesn’t shy away from the fact that they too, like all of us, make some incredibly terrible mistakes. Because Malcolm and his friends are so young, dorky, and closed-off from everyone else around them, it makes sense that they would only be able to react to a situation such as the one they’re thrown into, acting on pure ingenuity, regardless of what they think happens next. After all, they’re kids just acting like kids, so sue ’em!

But this is getting away from the reality that Dope is a familiar story, told exceptionally well by director Rick Famuyiwa. Even in the smaller, more intimate moments where it literally consists of two characters talking to one another about life, or what have you, there’s still a certain sense of energy behind Dope that’s infectious. While the movie takes place over a few weeks or so, it moves by so quickly and rapidly, that it literally could have been taken place in a single, hellacious day. And because of this, the movie never loses its muster; even if it is taken time to develop its characters a bit, there’s always a sense that there’s somewhere to go and that the plot needs to constantly unwrap.

Of course, by the end, the unwrapping gets a bit ridiculous. Though there’s a lot of eyebrow-raising coincidences that occur throughout a good majority of this movie, it’s the last-act or so where it seems like Famuyiwa loses a sense of this story a bit; then again, it seemed like it was inescapable. Because Dope is so swift and so willing to throw a twist and turn at us every chance it gets, it also suffers from the problem that it gets a bit too ahead of itself – even when it seems like we’re done with the whole drug-angle, the movie still continues to hammer away at it. Which is to say that the movie’s 110 time-limit could have easily been trimmed-down to at least 90 minutes and all would have been fine.

Then again, it’s hard to hate on a movie that’s having as much fun as Dope is.

Word of advice: Don't tell her about your band. She's probably heard a bit too much music in her lifetime.

Word of advice: Don’t tell her about your band. She’s probably heard a bit too much music in her lifetime.

Which, by a summer viewing standpoint, is exactly what you want. But at the same time, there’s still a message at the center of Dope that’s noteworthy and smart, and doesn’t try to cram down your throat (that is, until the last-act). Rather than being a tale about racism and how it affects our everyday landscape, Dope is more about how one person can get through that all and focus on what makes them better as a human being, rather than what it does for society. The characters in Dope realize that racism is indeed an issue, but they’re more or less concerned with how they’re going to get by in a world that constantly seems to be crushing them from both sides. Whereas some want to stay on the straight and narrow path of studying hard, getting a good job, and having a lovely life, others can’t ever see themselves doing that, so therefore, they stick to the streets where they deal drugs, rob people, and risk the chance of getting arrested and/or killed each and everyday. It’s a sad reality, but it’s the reality we live in.

And nobody knows this more than Malcolm, our main protagonist, played wonderfully by Shameik Moore. Malcolm is the 21st century definition of a “nerd”: While he’s definitely not the most popular kid in school, he’s far from being the dweeb. He dresses cool, isn’t too socially-awkward, and knows how the outside world works, even if he definitely gets picked-on by his confidantes because he’s smart and is able to use that to his advantage. Moore is great in this role because even though Malcolm seems to have it all figured out about what he wants to do with his life, he’s still far from growing up, or better yet, understanding everything there is to understand about life. He’s smart and inspired, but when he’s talking to girls or college counselors, he’s still a naive, 18-year-old kid that has an idea of what he wants, but when he gets right down to it, is still spacing out on all of the details.

Which we were all like at one point!

Playing Malcolm’s two buddies, Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori do solid jobs at making their personalities seem more than just “loving side kicks”; they too, like Malcolm, have their own dreams and aspirations, and are more than willing to support Malcolm in this poor situation. But perhaps the one that I was most impressed with was A$AP Rocky as the drug-dealer who puts the drugs in Malcolm’s bag in the first place, Dom. Even though it doesn’t seem like Rocky has to stretch himself too much to really fit into this role, he still impressed me with how he was able to embody a character that you’re never too sure about. Does Dom really like Malcolm? Or, basically, is he just using him for his own personal gain? And if so, what will he do to Dom when all is said and done?

Either way, you never know and it goes to show you that the list of good rappers-turned-actors just got a bit bigger.

Consensus: Despite a problematic last-act and run-time, Dope still treads along fine enough to where it’s entertaining, funny, and most of all, heartfelt to the point of where it seems like it’s offering you a glimpse into a character’s life whose is worth glimpsing into.

8 / 10

Dare to dream, kid.

Dare to dream, kid.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Love & Mercy (2015)

Dude should have just stuck with the surf rock genre. Clearly, it was going places.

Beach Boys member Brian Wilson is covered at two points in his life, both of which seem to unveil certain problems he faced with his wild personality. In the 60’s, he was a lot younger (Paul Dano), and decided that it was time for he and the rest of the Beach Boys to test the waters out and see what they could do next with their sound. This lead to Pet Sounds, which ultimately, lead to a whole lot more tension within the band, and left Wilson to start losing his mind a little. Then, in the 1980s, Wilson is a bit older (John Cusack), but also under the watch of self-appointed therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), which means that his life and every decision he makes, is being monitored so that Landy can keep track of what it is that Wilson does, regardless of whether or not it’s actually worrisome to his health. However, one fateful day, Brian meets a car saleswoman by the name of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and automatically knows that he wants to be with her. However, due to his “condition”, and also the fact that Eugene doesn’t like it when he disobeys certain rules, Brian’s left to act out a little.

Not crazy.

Not crazy.

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people know about Brian Wilson, the music he created, his personality, his career, and all of the controversy that came along with the decisions that he’s made throughout it. Some of it’s good; some of it’s bad; and some of it is, well, just what you get when you have a small-time musician who all of a sudden gains tons and tons of success, whether they wanted it or not. Sometimes, they go crazy – other times, they just blow it all away on drugs, guns, beer, women, and end up dying because of so.

Hardly do you ever see a musician go from being small, to big one day, without any screw ups occurring between, or after the fact.

But this is all to prove a point about the idea of the rock biopic itself: In all honesty, it’s sort of becoming tired. Sure, it’s nice to see high-quality actors like Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Giamatti, among others, take over the roles of some of these more famous types, but when you have a figure as famous and as notorious as Brian Wilson at your forefront, are you really trying to shed some light on anything new about him, his personality, or the music he created? Not really, and it shows so often here in Love & Mercy.

While this isn’t to say that the movie’s bad, it does, by the same token, still make it seem conventional, even if director Bill Pohlad tries very hard to make sure that this doesn’t happen. But even though it does, Pohlad still doesn’t forget the idea of what makes movies like these so interesting, is that all you need is a compelling angle to make things sizzle and spice a whole lot more. While that doesn’t wholly happen here, there’s something neat about watching the likes of Dano and Cusack just sink into these roles, playing practically the same person, without hardly looking anything alike, and still coming off as believable.

Now, once again, that’s talking about the acting, and less about the actual story itself and how it’s structured. The structure is, like I’ve said before, typical of these sorts of movies. We get a flawed musician who has a bit of problem, tries to get past it, and faces plenty of adversity from those around him due to this problem that he features. This is what we’ve all come to expect with these kinds of movies and it’s a bit of a shame, because you’d think a movie about such an innovator like Brian Wilson, wouldn’t try to walk the same patterns that some of Wilson’s fellow members always seemed to bring up and argue about.

Either try to change things up? Or stick to the script and do what people like? This is the main question of at the end of the day, but even I know if it’s able to make up a conclusion.

Still not totally crazy just yet.

Still not totally crazy just yet.

Which makes sense because the movie seems all the more infatuated with its performances, rather than any actual surprises in the narrative. As mentioned before, Dano is very good in the role as a younger version of Brian Wilson, where we get to see him in the studio, working with just about each and every person he employed to help out with his wild and crazy project ideas. He sinks right into a role that we think would be hard to do, but comes off as the right amount of odd ballish and sincerity, even if he is still a bit on the cooky side.

As the older version of Wilson, John Cusack puts in a great performance that he hasn’t seem to interested in giving for quite some time. However, what works so well for Cusack here is that he isn’t afraid to make us feel unsettled by Wilson’s demeanor, but also realize that he’s actually something of a sweet guy once you get beneath all of the weird mannerisms. Though it’d be easy to suggest that the real life Melinda Ledbetter would have fallen and gotten married to Wilson so quickly because of his name and the money, in the movie, you’d be wrong. Banks and Cusack have legitimate chemistry where it seems like, even despite the significant problems in Brian’s personality, they still want to make it work.

And of course, there’s Paul Giamatti, who is absolutely milking it to death as Dr. Eugene Landy. Because Landy was a pompous joke in real life, the movie really plays up the fact that it may have been him after all, that was the true psycho – not Brian. While the movie makes this strong argument (and Giamatti is very helpful in that effort), there’s still a part of me that feels like he was maybe a bit too wild and crazy to be taken as seriously as the movie wants us to take him. Sure, Giamatti’s scary, but Landy? Puh lease. It’s just another rich dude, scamming to make himself even more rich.

What else is there to know?

Consensus: Even despite the conventional format of Love & Mercy, the well put together cast helps keep it thoughtful, entertaining, and interesting, all at the same time.

8 / 10

Oh yeah, toates crazy. No doubt about it.

Oh yeah, toates crazy. No doubt about it.

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

Nightingale (2015)

Sometimes, the best conversations you ever have with yourself. But trust me, I’m not crazy.

After his mother mysteriously leaves him all alone in his childhood home, Peter Snowden (David Oyelowo) finally gets all sorts of freedom to do whatever it is that he wants. That means he gets to sing, dance, smoke, drink, eat fish, and document it all for the rest his “followers” to see on some sort of live vid-chat. But most of all, Peter wants to reconnect with a long, lost pal of his, which he’s able to do by setting up dinner at his place for Friday. Now, Peter’s got plenty of time to make himself up all primed and ready for his friend, so that he can not only impress him, but possibly get out of his house once and for all, and be away from his overprotective mother that never let him do much of anything fun in the first place. However, people keep calling the house and asking his mom – which leads Peter to dodge this questions and, sooner than later, concerns in an odd fashion. This leaves many of them to wonder just where the hell she actually is, and better yet, just what the hell Peter has been up to for the past few days or so without her around to keep him in line.

Crazy.

Crazy.

If, for some reason or another, you don’t like David Oyelowo and would much rather not have him any movie you see, as opposed to the opposite, then Nightingale will not be the movie for you. Once again, I don’t know what the reason would be as to why you wouldn’t like David Oyelowo and his skills as an actor, but the reason you would want to steer clear of this movie, is because it’s literally David Oyelowo, all of the time, with nobody else, for literally an hour-and-a-half. If you can’t handle all of that, then don’t bother to watch – even if I don’t exactly know why’d you want to do that in the first place. Because not only is Oyelowo fantastic in every movie he shows up in, but here, he’s exceptionally so.

And he ought to be, considering that he is, like I utter again, literally the only person you see in this movie. Sure, you hear a few people on the TV and a person even comes to knock at the door to talk (who’s voice you hear, but his face is never seen), but aside from those two instances, there’s never much contact heard, or ever seen, that Peter has with the outside world. There’s a lot of talking to himself and to people on the phone, however, but with the later, we never hear the person on the other line; it’s just all Peter, all of the time.

And you know what? David Oyelowo, whether you love him or inexplicably hate him (once again, for reasons I can’t even begin to think of), makes it all work so damn well.

As Peter Snowden, Oyelowo is able to dig deep into the psyche of a man we literally know nothing about. We’re practically thrown into his life, warts and all, watching as he’s having something of a nervous breakdown, and though we don’t know why that is or where it’s going to go, it’s hard to turn away. We may not have anything to know about him early on, but it’s hard to not be enticed right away by him, his personality, and his actions, even if they seem to be all under the same category of “crazy”.

But once again, that’s the beauty of Oyelowo’s performance; though Peter is obviously a very weird and nutty dude, Oyelowo makes him seem like a normal, everyday kind of guy that has a problem or two with his anger, self-control, and talking to imaginary person(s) he may, or may not be making up in his head. Clearly Peter has something wrong with him, but what is it? Better yet, where does it all stem from? Does he have a mental illness of sorts? Or was his mother just a tad too controlling and bossy for his own good?

Yep. still crazy.

Yep. still crazy.

Whatever the answers may be, they rarely come and they didn’t need to; Oyelowo was more than enough to compensate for a grey area here and there.

With Peter Snowden, too, Oyelowo gets to show the rest of the world the range that he has within his skill-sets. Though it’s not hard to imagine Oyelowo being able to play so many other types of characters, it’s still a shock to see him turn on and off his comedic-timing, while also still making us scared out of our minds by how deeply and truly twisted he can seem to be. It’s definitely not an easy task to make this kind of character anything short of annoying (what with all of the constant talking to one’s self and thinking that one’s self is the funniest person in the room), but once again, he makes it work. Maybe David Oyelowo truly is the real deal that we, the movie world should take more notice of.

Sure, he’s been on the upswing for the past couple or so years, but after his undeserved snub for an Oscar in Selma, it becomes ever so clear now that Oyelowo deserves more recognition from the film world. Nightingale may not be a perfect movie (still think it could have delved deeper and gone the extra mile to portray more about Peter’s condition, whatever it may have been), but as a vehicle for David Oyelowo’s incredibly wide skills as an actor – somebody who can be both funny, charming, and odd, sometimes all in one scene – it’s stunning.

Which is, like I’ve said before, to say that Oyelowo himself is actually stunning and more than deserving of anymore recognition that comes his way in the upcoming years.

Consensus: Without broadening its story’s lenses, Nightingale serves as a wonderful calling card for the amazing talents of David Oyelowo; the one who makes this movie worth watching just about every second it’s on for.

8 / 10

And, yep, you guessed it - crazy. Oh well.

And, yep, you guessed it – crazy. Oh well.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Vulture

Paddington (2015)

The bear’s still creepy.

After an earthquake hits his home in darkest Peru, a young, talking bear (Ben Whishaw) is forced to move elsewhere in life. His aunt suggests a fine place called London, where she was once told, many years ago by an explorer, that if they were to come and visit, they’d be accepted with open arms. However, it’s only the young bear who can come and visit, so that’s what he does in hopes of meeting that explorer and adapting to regular, human customs. As soon as the young bear shows up in London, though, he’s left alone and with nowhere else to go, that is, until he gets seen by the Brown family. While the mother, Mary (Sally Hawkins), is accepting of this homeless little bear who is desperately in need of a home, her husband, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), couldn’t be bothered. Eventually, he caves in and decides to keep the bear in their place until it can find its original owner. But also occurring at the same time is a taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) who finds out that this rare bear is alive and walking on London’s surface, which puts her deadly sights on him.

Oh, and he has a name, and it’s Paddington.

Somebody fetch this bloke some tea!

Somebody fetch this bloke some tea!

While I’m not all that familiar with Paddington, its history, and all of that, I have to say, everything leading up to this movie didn’t make me have anymore interest. Not only did Colin Firth leave about half-way through production, but the movie itself had to be pushed back from its holiday time-slot, all the way to the death ring that is January. Also, Paddington himself seemed a bit creepy and it didn’t help that the movie continued to advertise wacky, slapstick-ish hijinx surrounding him accidentally breaking stuff. Basically, nothing was looking good for this movie and it seemed like it would just be another failed attempt bringing the whole family together for movie night – a staple that should always be held.

Well, somehow, it all worked out.

There’s something inherently sweet about Paddington that goes past just being for the whole family. Sure, there’s plenty of jokes aimed towards both the kids, as well as the adults, but they aren’t the same types of jokes that the later would be ashamed in seeing come from something aimed towards kids. More or less, the jokes here that appeal to the adults in the room, are tricky, clever plays on words that seem to realize that, in order to have your audience laughing, you can’t just spoon-feed them everything. A slap, a hit, or a trip is fine and all for the kids, but don’t forget about the grown-ups who have to usually sit through these things; which is what writer/director Paul King doesn’t forget about.

But that said, the movie is still fine for kids to watch, if not more exciting. While Paddington, the bear, still rubs me the wrong way a bit, there’s no denying the fact that the kids who see this will become enthralled with him and why shouldn’t they? He’s live, walking, and talking CGI-bear that spouts words of kindness to those around him and, sometimes without ever trying to do so, ends up saving the day in ways he doesn’t expect. He truly is the kind of character that mostly all kids should see a movie about and it’s nice to see justice be done to him; and this is all coming from a person who didn’t know all that much about Paddington to begin with.

And voicing Paddington, Ben Whishaw does a fine job, portraying a certain style of fun and innocence that I don’t quite think Firth would have been able to portray quite as well. That’s not to say Whishaw’s better than Firth in ways, but here, for this specific role, it seems obvious that the former would take over the job of the later, if only because it seems like Firth would have been a tad too “royal” for a character as goofy as Paddington. Still, it’s a surprise that the people behind this were able to get Firth to do this in the first place, let alone have him already shoot half of his scenes before he eventually realized what he was doing and decided to just do a bunch of promo for Kingsman, as it should be.

The effect Nicole Kidman still has on men.

The effect Nicole Kidman still has on men.

There’s also plenty of human characters here too, and they also do fine jobs to where they don’t get over-shadowed by the bear, which would have been very hard not to have happen. Hugh Boneville’s character may seem like a stern tight-ass, but eventually, there are certain shades to him where we see that it all comes from a reason and believe it or not, there’s still some fun left in him; Sally Hawkins is equally delightful as his wife and gives some sort of personality to Mary that goes past just being kind and peaceful to all those around her; and Nicole Kidman, surprisingly, does a good job here as the villain of the story, playing up a comedic-side to her that we don’t usually see.

Or, if we do, it’s usually in something like Bewitched, where her skills are absolutely wasted, but if anything Paddington proves, it’s that Nicole Kidman should play more baddies, as well as be funny.

If there’s anything that keeps me away from giving Paddington the full-on, full-out praise that mostly everybody else on the face of the planet has been able to do, it’s that I felt as if the political themes and ideas were a tad bit odd, especially given the fact in how they were placed into the story. While the movie makes it a point to not make it a total point that there is in fact a bear walking all around the streets and nobody literally batting an eye, there’s something strange in how it seems like it’s discussing immigration, but not really discussing it at all. Paddington, the character, is all alone and left without much of a home, but it’s up to the government and possible suitors who may be able to take him in and make him their own.

A little odd, right? My feelings exactly, but then again, it’s a kids movie so little things like that probably should be disregarded.

In other words, just don’t listen to me.

Consensus: Fun, light and appropriate enough for just about every member of any given family, Paddington is a joyous and sweet little ride that offers up a likable character to a new generation of possible fans and with good reason.

8 / 10

Cuddly and all, but still wouldn't trust him home alone with my kids. But that's just me.

Cuddly and all, but still wouldn’t trust him home alone with my kids. But that’s just me.

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)

Kurt Cobain was depressed? No. Not this guy.

In case you’ve never heard of the name before, Kurt Cobain was a guy who played music. Really, really loud music, that is. In a band called Nirvana, too. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? Other than that though, there was a whole lot more to Kurt Cobain that was less about the music he played and the legions of fans it inspired, and more about what was really going on inside his actual head, even throughout all of his life. From his early days as a young kid growing up in 70’s Seattle, without any stable home, to his high school days where he was made a mockery for slacking off and not really fitting fully in. Then, of course, we track the time from when he first started out in Nirvana with his best buddy Krist Novoselic, to when he first met his long-time girlfriend, soon-to-be-wife, Courtney Love. And lastly, after the birth of his daughter, Kurt’s life all came to an end.

That is, once again, if you haven’t heard about any of this so far. If you haven’t, I’d say get out right from underneath that rock as soon as you can, because seriously, you should know more.

Don't lie, you all bought that same sweater.

Don’t lie, you all bought that same sweater.

Anyway, rockumentaries are mostly a dime-a-dozen nowadays. For one, they hardly ever seem to get down to the solid matter of a band/artist, or better yet, the artist/band called into question isn’t all that interesting to begin with. Sometimes, you’re much better off just checking out a Wikipedia page, taking it all with a grain of salt, but also still realizing that it may help you get a clearer picture of whomever the documentary’s actually about and not feel as if your time was wasted. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the rockumentary doesn’t work (A Band Called Death is one of the best, most recent examples that come to mind), it’s just that they so rarely capture an audience’s attention, that isn’t done in the same way on an episode of Behind the Music.

And with that said, there hasn’t really been a good Kurt Cobain documentary made. A part of me knows that there’s reason for that (Courtney Love is definitely afraid of certain things that we already assume about her and Kurt’s relationship, leaking out), but another part of me feels like Cobain’s mind was so challenging, screwed-up, and frustrating, that it’s nearly impossible to make a full-fledged, wholly informative documentary about him, his life, and his everyday thoughts and ideas, without still not getting to the core of what may have been bugging this guy all along. A Nirvana biopic is easy enough, but a Kurt Cobain that goes deep into the heart, mind, and soul of who he was when he was alive, is truly something difficult.

And while I don’t know if Brett Morgen fully captures it all, he comes pretty damn close; which is definitely better than not doing so at all.

Because Morgen was given, by both Frances Bean and Love, privilege to all sorts of Cobain’s personal belongings like diaries, home videos, audio recordings, etc., he’s able to wave his way through Cobain’s mind. However, what may seem like a simple task from just reading a few words/pictures on a piece of paper, Morgen had to probably realize right away that Cobain’s mind, whether you love it or hate it, was surely something that deserved to be examined. All of his personal feelings, doubts, angers, pleasures, experiences, etc. are shown to us and they all paint a very depressing, almost disturbing portrait of a person who really didn’t have a firm grip on his own life. While some people may feel as if Morgen is sort of holding the glass up to Cobain and pointing a finger at him, there’s a good portion of the movie that’s literally featuring Cobain saying everything we’re already supposed to feel/think about him; it’s not even like Morgen’s trying to make up stuff for the fun of it, either.

By going as far as he could into seeing everything that Kurt saw, Morgen definitely deserves some credit. There’s a lot of showwy moments that feels like Morgen’s trying to overcompensate for the fact that most of his movie is just scribbles on a piece of paper and rare video footage, but they only help us get another glimpse into what could have definitely been going on in Kurt’s mind in the first place. This movie wasn’t made to talk about Nirvana, or even point a middle-finger directly at Courtney Love – it’s literally Kurt’s time to shine where, hopefully, his whole story can be aired out to anybody who is still interested in hearing it and, most of all, making sense of it.

Because surely, neither are an easy task to do, let alone, complete.

The couple from absolute hell. Second to Sid and Nancy, of course.

The couple from absolute hell. Second to Sid and Nancy, of course.

Where Montage of Heck, like most other documentaries already made about Cobain, seems to frustrate me, is that when Kurt kills himself, the movie’s over. There’s nothing more. We get a small epilogue that already, literally, spells everything out that most of us know beforehand and then the end credits roll-up. While I do see this as an effective piece of editing from Morgen’s side of the boat, seeing as how he wasn’t trying to make this some sort of fluff-piece about how great and legendary Cobain was, I still felt like there was something more missing. Especially given the fact that Morgen, from what it seems, had a lot more that he wanted to use, yet, was hiding away for some odd reason.

For instance, while the movie doesn’t heavily rely on interviews, there’s still plenty of them to be seen here and, believe it or not, offer much insight into Kurt’s life. Both of his parents show up to discuss his up-bringing in a way that’s both interesting, as well as odd, but then a few other interviews, like an ex-girlfriend, or even Krist Novoselic, don’t seem to do much. The ex-girlfriend just rambled on about how great of a girlfriend she was, and Novoselic just sort of chats about him and Kurt being in the band – insights that I’ve heard him share many of times before. Of course Courtney Love comes to air her words, but honestly, I won’t bother diving into what she says, or better yet, was even trying to say in the first place.

Either way, Morgen had the opportunity to unleash more about Cobain’s life that, for some odd reason, I feel like he was holding out on. When the movie ended, it didn’t feel like it; oddly enough, there felt like there was more to it than just Kurt dying and that being it. Maybe there’s a point to be made in that – even though a person is dead, are they ever really gone? They may not be around in the physical form, but they are still in the hearts and minds of each and every person whom they’ve affected, and Kurt Cobain, believe it or not, was like any other human being. Sure, he may have been messed-up in the head, played guitar really well, been famous, influenced a plethora of adoring fans, and spent a good part of his life in the spotlight, but, like you or I, he touched people and made them think about him, even way after he was gone.

It’s still frustrating, but hey, maybe that’s the point.

Consensus: With plenty of material to dig into, Brett Morgen does justice to Kurt Cobain’s life and story in Montage of Heck, yet, at the same time, still gives off the feeling that there’s still more, believe it or not, to be developed about this interesting figure.

8 / 10

Kurt Cobain, male model? Oh, the opportunities!

Kurt Cobain, male model? Oh, the opportunities!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Let’s hope the real Earth doesn’t actually run out of water.

In the distant, post-apocalyptic future, where mostly all resources have dried-up, a tyrannical cult leader named King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) practically runs a whole region of the desert. People obey his each and every order, even when he seems to be robbing them of such goods like water or oil. Though mostly everybody follows Joe, there’s at least one outsider by the name of Max (Tom Hardy); an ex-cop who follows his own sets of rules and guidelines, even though it eventually gets him kidnapped by one of Joe’s trusted minions (Nicholas Hoult). But for Joe to keep his legacy running, he’s kept a good amount of “wives” – one of whom is actually carrying his child. To transport these wives to a safer, better place, Joe has called upon his most trusted worker, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who decides that she’s about had it with Joe’s ways and sets out on an adventure to take the wives elsewhere, where they won’t be treated as property, and can live on in perfect peace and harmony – something that doesn’t seem to be found too often in this world. Somehow though, the plans go awry and Max ends up tagging along with the group, and, needless to say, shit gets crazy.

To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the original Mad Max movies. While that’s not to say that I don’t find them at all enjoyable, which I do, it’s more that I feel like they’re a bunch of good ideas wasted on an smaller, 80’s-era budget. Sure, it’s a sign of the times, but considering George Miller could have made way more insane, over-the-top movies, had he been given a relatively meatier budget/resources to work with, then there’d be more to rant on and rave about with those movies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I despise those movies in any fashion, it’s just that they could have been so much more.

What? He's not handsome-as-'eff or anything.....

What? He’s not handsome-as-‘eff or anything…..

Something that Mad Max: Fury Road is, and then some.

With this reboot of sorts, George Miller finally gets his chance to play with any toys he so desires. Whereas in the past, he was limited by what he can spend excess amounts of money and time on, Fury Road feels like Miller was finally given the opportunity of his life time; have a great time, do it with as much money and freedom as possible, and also, most surprisingly, get a chance to tell the same story over again. Given that technology has advanced over the past few decades, there’s a lot more neat things that Miller is able to do – now certain ideas that were deemed “insane” from the earlier movies, he now gets to do, but even more so.

What I’m trying to get across here is that Fury Road, for all it’s worth, is the kind of summer blockbuster any person could ask for. Not only is it fun, but it’s the kind of movie that’s so strange, so out-of-this-world, and so barbaric in every sense, that it’s actually kind of “cool”. No longer does the Mad Max franchise feel like it’s something that can only be enjoyed by a legion of cultees that are willing to admit that they’re fans in public – now, everybody gets a chance to enjoy Mad Max, the character, the world he’s placed into, and all of the crazy shit that surrounds it, and not feel weird. One could say that this is a disappointing sign of something that was so beloved and held sacred by a select few, going “mainstream”, and they may be true. However, another one could say that this is just a sign of something being made for a select few, being made for everyone and if that means we get more movies after this Mad Max, where creativity and oddness is embraced, rather than looked down upon from the masses, then I myself am totally for that.

I as much as the next person like to be weird and have my weird things for my own-self, but if that selfishness comes at a cost of not getting more of that, then I’m totally cool with it being passed onto others. So much so as the makers stay true to the original personality that made me love its weirdness so much in the first place. And even though I’ve already made it abundantly clear that I wasn’t quite “in love” with the Mad Max franchise before this, I still knew that it held much promise, had it been made in today’s day and age of film making.

A promise that, thankfully, was kept and acted upon.

Though I am definitely fine with saying that this movie’s a fun time and that you should definitely believe all of the overwhelming hype surrounding it, there is still a part of me that feels like certain parts of it could have been given a second look. Certain elements about the plot that aren’t ever made fully clear to us, that definitely should have to give the audience a better understanding of what’s at-stake and what’s next to come, would have definitely helped. It’s understandable that these women are all getting taken away from bad leader Joe, but where exactly are they going? Better yet, why are they going? We see how Joe acts towards most of the residents who live in his paradise of sorts, but we hardly see how he acts towards his wives, nor is it easy to make sense of why they so desperately need to get away from him and the world they are surrounded by.

Be careful who you break up with, Sean Penn.

Be careful who you break up with, Sean Penn.

Whereas this would have made any other action movie feel like a total waste of time, with Mad Max, from what I’ve been gathering reading about it from so many other people, it’s being glossed over. Why? Well, that’s because Fury Road is exceptionally wild, nuts and fun, where it takes so much time and effort to pay attention to what’s it doing to have you entertained, rather than paying attention to the details. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to get on a movie’s case for giving me an incomprehensible plot that, in hindsight, doesn’t make much sense, or even seems like it wants to, but there’s just something I wanted to address.

Once again though, that doesn’t take away from the fact that Fury Road is a very fun movie, nor does it take away from the fact that the characters are really well-done, despite them being as thin as the plot they’re working with.

Some people may be disappointed with the fact that Tom Hardy doesn’t speak too much here as the titular Max, but that works so well for him here – not because Max himself doesn’t need much explanation as to why he is the way he is, but because Hardy is such a compelling presence, that he doesn’t even need to speak to get people on-edge. He just needs to stand there, stare into space, and already, you’re hooked. Hardy has that certain aura about him that makes every scene he’s in, all the better and more thrilling, and here, he gets to portray plenty of that.

However, the one who may have one-upped him here is Charlize Theron as the absolute bad-ass, take-no-names, but also humane heroine Furiosa. A lot has been said about how Fury Road represents a very feminist-stance on the action genre, and while I don’t think that this is something that necessarily holds true, I still can’t get past the fact that the strongest character written here, both literally and figuratively, is a women. Granted, it helps that Furiosa is played by the very tall, slender and demanding presence of Theron, but it also helps that Furiosa has a reason for acting the way she does and it’s not made to be a certain point that Miller has been holding close to his heart and has been wanting to express for so long. That Furiosa wants to help these women because she wants them to be happy and not made an item of some maniacal leader, gives the character some semblance of complexity.

And well, also the fact that Charlize Theron can kick anybody’s ass, man, woman, or thing, it doesn’t matter.

Consensus: Wacky, wild, over-the-top, campy, but most of all, exciting and fun-as-hell, Mad Max: Fury Road represents everything that should be great with summer blockbusters, but so rarely do they actually become.

8.5 / 10

Dirty Aussies! Take a shower will ya!

Dirty Aussies! Take a shower, will ya!

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

Mad Max (1979)

Drives to the supermarket just got a whole lot more intense.

In a savage, post-apocalyptic land, Officer Max Rockatansky (Gibson) is the law and runs it his way; whether people like it or not, is strictly their problems. Things got real hot and heavy, however, when a group of nomadic bikers led by the deranged Toecutter (Keays-Byrne) murder his friend and attack his family, forcing Max to unleash revenge the only way he knows best.

You got to hand it to director George Miller because this guy took a budget of only $400,000, used that cash to bring out some sick-ass looking cars, fashion statements, and guns, only to end up grossing nearly over $100,000,000 worldwide and influencing every piece of pop-culture from Saw to Chris Jericho. Yeah, this guy’s got a lot on his plate in terms of love and respect and with good reason, because this film still hits as hard now as it did back in 1979.

What’s solid about Miller’s direction is what he does with these car/bike chases. Nowadays we see onslaughts of CGI and special effects tamper with the image of what an automobile accident should look like, so it’s pretty refreshing to see a guy use not one piece of that and get some of the craziest, most realistic-looking accidents ever filmed. There’s a type of kinetic style and energy that Miller brings to this material that makes all of the action scenes that much more amped-up and intense than they probably already are, and it makes the crashes look even better, especially when in the first ten minutes you see one blow up into little, tiny pieces.

Max isn't mad? He's happy and romantic?!? Ew!

Max isn’t mad? He’s happy and romantic?!? Ew!

And when you have a movie where hardly any character drives below 65 mph, then you definitely need to make sure things are moving no matter what.

The way Miller uses the dead center of the Australian desert works too, in that it makes it seem like this flick is taking place in a Western town, where everything just went to shit because of some terrible apocalyptic happening. There’s not a lot of effort and money put into the set designs, but when you have gangs that dress like Judas Priest, sexy-ass cars that you can literally hear and smell a mile away, and have dudes who don’t shave but always look bad-ass, you don’t need to because you’re already set in creating a pretty screwed up and weird place to begin with. Just goes to show you that what you can do with little or no money at all and still make it look like hell on Earth.

Well, hell on Earth with a lot of gasoline and leather.

But despite all of this slick and cool style that Miller gives off, his story seems to falter. There’s nothing really flashy with this story that hasn’t already been done before but what bothered me is where it ends up going. The first act and the last act are both filled with insane amounts of cool action that keeps the flick moving at a brisk, fun pace, but then there was this middle act that just seemed to meander along without anything happening. What’s even worse is we get one of those sappy, happy montages that almost changes the whole mood of the film completely. Maybe Miller wanted to save up on all of his action and violence for the end (you know, for money purposes), but he could have really given me something better in the meantime to hold one’s interest.

How I like to drive. Especially during rush hour.

How I like to drive. Especially during rush hour.

Let me also not forget to mention that since this is in fact, a straight-up B-movie, there are the usual tendencies that all B-movies seem to go through. Some moments here are so freakin’ campy that it almost feels like the film is doing a self-parody on itself. One sequence in particular was when Max stumbles upon his partner in a hospital bed, being burnt to a crisp. For some reason, Miller thought that this scene needed that extra “oomph” to really gain our attention, so he adds a terribly loud and dramatic score that seems like it came right out of a Hitchcock movie. That wouldn’t have seemed so bad had Miller gone for that type of movie, but for the most part, it doesn’t seem like he is, so of course, some of this plays off as a bit more ridiculous than it probably intended on being.

However, at the center of it all is Mel Gibson; somebody who, despite all of the controversy surrounding his name, is incredibly talented in proving himself to be a total and absolute bad-ass. This isn’t something people knew about him back in the day, but his big-screen debut in Mad Max changed that and it’s no surprise. Max, the character, goes through a whole range of emotions that change up throughout the whole flick and it’s Gibson’s charisma and energy that he puts into this role that really makes it stand out. Sometimes this character can go into the usual conventions, but Gibson just about rises above that and makes this character cool, violent, and also one scary person you do not want to piss off. Gibson’s career as of late seems to be going in and out, but regardless of what happens next for him, we’ll always have this gem of his to remind us of the young up-and-comer that he once was.

That is, before he started drinking and telling cops how he exactly felt about them.

Consensus: Certain cracks here and there in the narrative, but overall, Mad Max still works as a solid, low-budget, B-movie that also has the novelty of featuring a very young, but very compelling Mel Gibson in the titled-role.

8 / 10

Big yellow taxis ain't got nothin' on Max.

Big yellow taxis ain’t got nothin’ on Max.

Photos Courtesy of: Movpins

Far From Men (2015)

If budget-cuts weren’t enough, now teachers have to worry about transporting murderers.

Middle-aged schoolteacher Daru (Viggo Mortensen) leads a peaceful life 1950’s-Algeria. That all changes, however, when he is called upon to transport a prisoner by the name of Mohamed (Reda Kateb). Though Mohamed has been charged with killing his cousin, the reasons behind it make the crime seem justified in Daru’s eyes, so he tries to get him to escape to take them both out of trouble. The problem is that Mohamed doesn’t want to escape and instead, insists that Daru take him to the French, where he will either be imprisoned for the rest of his days, or killed instantly. Either option isn’t ideal, but then again, living in Algeria around this time period isn’t, so these two have to take whatever hand life deals them. Along the journey, the two get to learn more and more about one another, where they see that even though they are from two different societies, they are still alike in many ways; so much so that they eventually save each other from some very life-or-death situations.

I’ve said it before, and you know what? I’ll say it once again: Simple movies are sometime the best ones. While they don’t always need to challenge the viewer so much with numerous over-written, complicated, and contrived subplots, they also don’t need to forget to bring some complexity to their proceedings as well. In fact, there’s something of a line between being complicated and too much, against being too easy and skimping out on any details. Some may call me “stupid” for having such a love, or taste for movies that play it as simple and easy as most of life is, but so be it.

"Sadly, I did that."

“Sadly, I did that.”

And that’s one of the main reasons as to why Far From Men does it for me.

Granted, there’s a portion of this movie where I do wish that writer/director David Oelhoffen dug a tad bit deeper and tried to go for the heavy, complicated answers to even more complicated questions, but overall, there’s a lot here beneath the surface; sometimes, you just have to look closely enough to find it.

With this plot-line, too, there is some understanding that the audience watching will have to know an awful lot about the Algerian rebellion against the French, but honestly, one Goggle search will get you all caught up. Because, after awhile, it becomes clear that the movie is just using that setting as a backdrop for a story that, despite seeming like a rip-off of the same plot from the Last Detail, goes deeper to discuss what it takes to be a person who not only has faith and hope in one’s country, but in humanity as well. Some people believe that the two go hand-in-hand, but as this movie continues to go on and go on, the answer becomes very clear that that isn’t the case; sometimes, it’s much more complicated than that.

For instance, take the character of Mohamed – someone who would be so easy to classify as “bad” and almost “villainous”, because of what we are made to believe of him. Sure, he’s a murderer, but at the same time, the reason as to why he did kill somebody, and the fact that he isn’t trying to hide away from that fact, either, is quite telling. It’s obvious that most of this movie is going to concern itself with Daru and Mohamed talking to one another and bonding over whatever comes their way, but it’s less hokey and corny than you’d expect; rather than making things up and making it seem like these two are the same person, in and out, but separated by location, the movie actually embraces the fact that these are two different men. They may be sort of, kind of, maybe thrown into the same position against their will, with their hands literally and figuratively tied, but as is, they aren’t the same person, and because of this, it’s interesting to see how and where they bond.

Don't worry, he ain't so bad.

Don’t worry, he ain’t so bad.

With Mohamed, we learn that he’s more of a sympathetic character despite the fact that he killed someone; we realize that he’s a family man who, against his will, had to kill for his family’s freedom. But with Daru, we get a realy glimpse into the life and soul of a person who literally wants to do the right thing no matter what sort of situation he’s thrown into, but somehow, can’t seem to get past the fact that not everybody thinks or acts like he does. While he is in Algeria to teach young kids French and enlighten them in ways that they’ve never had the opportunity to be before, he’s also held down by the fact that he’s a former soldier who had to kill in order to survive. It’s also because of this, he is called on to act in his nation’s line of duty, whether he believes in the cause or not.

This character’s inner-fight is complex and believable, if not because of the way he’s written, but because of how great Mortensen is with him. It’s neat to see someone like Mortensen, an actor who seems so clearly comfortable with starring in big-budget, mainstream extravaganzas like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Hidalgo, go for roles in much smaller, almost obscure movies that not even a quarter of the fans of those movies will see, but that’s why we have actors like him in the world. Mortensen, who is very good at speaking French mind you, gives Daru plenty to be compelling, but also shows that he isn’t a perfect human being and, for the most part, has to make some very desperate actions to keep himself, as well as Mohamed, alive and well, so that they continue on to their destination; wherever that may be. Don’t get me wrong, Daru isn’t happy about these decisions that he makes, but he feels like he has to and that’s already what makes him a challenging character to work with.

But then you remember he’s being played by Aragorn and all of a sudden, all negativity about that character goes away.

Consensus: While it may seem simple on the surface, Far From Men digs deep into these characters, as well as the terrain surrounding them, to create a fully-realized, understanding, and complex world where men are made to do whatever they possibly can to survive and continue on.

8 / 10

"No worries, I'm Viggo Mortensen and I've got a gun. Nothing can go wrong."

“No worries, I’m Viggo Mortensen and I’ve got a gun. Nothing can go wrong.”

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

More robots?

Since their big battle in New York City, the Avengers crew has been up to a lot; although, more often than not, they’re separated from one another, left to fend for themselves. Now, many years after their last team-up, the gang is back together and, for the most part, everybody seems to be the same. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is still a snarky deuche; Captain America (Chris Evans) is still trying to keep everybody in line; the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is trying his hardest to control his temper and not lose all sense of control; Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still kicking as much ass he possibly can; Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is doing the same as Thor, except with her sheer beauty; and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is, well, still there. However, now with a new threat on their hands, inadvertently courtesy of Banner and Stark, the gang has to fight even harder than ever before, especially since they’re going up against new foes like Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen), and perhaps more dangerous than they ever expected, Ultron (James Spader), a piece of artificial intelligence that nobody seems to be ready for.

"Quit crying, bro. We've got baddies to fight."

“Quit crying, bro. We’ve got baddies to brawl.”

The first Avengers was pretty much everything anybody who had been waiting four incredibly long years could have ever wanted. It was fun, hilarious, action-packed, and featured all sorts of fan boy moments that made not just the die hards happy and not taking their disapproval straight to the message boards, but also showed that, while this may have been the pinnacle of the Marvel franchise so far, it wouldn’t at all be the last outing. In fact, if there was anything at all spectacular about what Joss Whedon did with the first movie, was that he showed that there was plenty more life to be found inside of these characters, their stories, and what could come their way next.

And now, it’s time for the eventual sequel to that near-masterpiece of everything that’s right with superhero movies and there’s a slight feeling of disappointment. It’s not because Whedon messes up here and gets everything wrong; in fact, everything that Whedon does here, for the majority of it, is that he allows for the action to be as fun, as loud, and as energetic as possible, while also still allowing for us to see everything that’s happening where, when, and to whom. However, he never loses sight of what makes them kick so hard and as well as they do, and that’s the characters.

Yes, these are the same characters that we’ve spent so much time with already, but as you’ll see here, Whedon breaths some new life into them and allows us to see them in a light that we haven’t quite seen them in before: A vulnerable one.

See, what Whedon gets right here, as Guardians of the Galaxy showed us all last summer, is that these characters probably work best when they’re just hanging around with one another, shootin’ the shit, getting on each other’s cases, and overall, learning more than they ever thought they could. Because, as they’re getting to learn more about each other, we’re doing the same; which in and of itself, is not only interesting, but fun. We think we know these characters for all that they appear to be and then we see a certain conversation they have go a way they didn’t expect it to, and all of a sudden, something new is learned. There are many moments of that here and, due to reasons that can’t be disclosed, they feel more emotional and compelling, rather than just fine bits and pieces of filler.

Problem is, that once the filler comes around, it feels like it’s just around to take-up space.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not mad at a Marvel movie for offering all sorts of action it can come up with. However, I do get a tad bit ticked-off when it takes away from moments that could be spent, dedicated to more and more character development, where we feel like something is actually being accomplished, rather than just tacked-on so people don’t get bored quickly. Whedon does a fine job at putting in certain action sequences that go everywhere and anywhere that they want, with absolute reckless abandon and they’re fun to watch, it’s just that it sometimes feel like the wheels are spinning, but there’s nobody driving.

Things can blow up as much as they want, but when there’s general basis for them, then there’s a bit of a problem. Which, like I’ve said before, wouldn’t have been bad, had it been serviced by something of a plot that worked, or better yet, made some bit of sense. From what I can tell you, Ultron is bad and is capable of planting his subconscious into any robot-body it wants. This, for the most part, made sense to me, but then, for reasons I can’t understand as anything but “corporate excess”, Whedon throws a plethora of characters onto our plate where we’re wondering what they serve to the plot, what they’re all about, and whether or not they’re even worth our time.

Not saying that I have a problem adding in new characters, but when it eventually seems like too much, then you have the same sort of problem that a fellow superhero flick like Spider-Man 3 had. While that movie was definitely off a lot worse than this one, there’s something here that makes me think that all of the added-on characters and subplots, like some of the action, were all just filler; they weren’t to serve much of a purpose, other than to just distract the audience from what is a very confusing and nonsensical plot, and the fact that it could care less about developing the already-known characters a bit more.

"Me mad? But why? WAAH!"

“Me mad? But why? WAAH!”

This isn’t to say that the characters here don’t get some attention and care that they deserve. Above everyone else, Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner gets the most development of the pack, where we see him not only tangle with his possible emotions for the likes of Black Widow, but his actual emotions as well. There’s been a lot said about the Hulk character in the past where he seems like too much of a supporting character that, when he’s given his own, single-picture, it doesn’t quite work as well as the others. If that is the case, then Whedon has done a true service to this character where we get enough of him to sense the danger, the sadness, and the actual thrill within this character that people always want to see.

Everybody else that isn’t the Hulk, though, sort of get the short-end of the stick.

One of the more genius aspects surrounding the newly-recruited Scarlet Witch’s character is that she’s able to dig into anybody’s deepest, darkest and most painful secrets imaginable, and with that power, comes plenty of glimpses into some of these character’s heads that are not only disturbing, but pretty sad. For example, Cap’s and Thor’s memories are all about how they miss the people they let-down and left behind, whereas with Black Widow’s, we see her horribly violent up-bringing that makes you wonder just how far she’s willing to go with these missions, where she runs the risk of losing herself. These small glances are what help make these characters all the more compelling to watch and root for, however, there comes a point where it seems to just be used as a way to make us think that the odds are fully stacked-up against the Avengers’ crew.

And while that may most certainly be true with the likes of the absolutely dangerous and intimidating Ultron, the fast, furious and cocky Quicksilver, and the previously mentioned Scarlet Witch, it seems unneeded. It’s almost as if Whedon wanted to jump inside these character’s heads, and jump out as soon as quickly before the going got too heavy. This definitely puts it a step-up above most of the summer blockbusters that are constantly thrown at us left and right, however, it also feels like a teaser for something that’s deeper than what any of us expect.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but why the small hints, Joss? Give us it all!

Consensus: As far as superhero blockbusters go, Avengers: Age of Ultron is as action-packed, exciting and as fun as you’d expect it to be, however, some of it is starting to feel repetitive now, especially since there’s more to be unraveled about these characters and what we do get, works so damn well.

8 / 10

Basically a film adaptation of the Blacklist, but with no fedoras. Bummer.

Basically a film adaptation of the Blacklist, but with no fedoras. Bummer.

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

Ex Machina (2015)

Trust humans, or trust robots. Choose one. Can’t be both.

For no reason whatsoever, young computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen to spend a week with reclusive billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac), where he remains secluded from the rest of the world in his palace in the mountains. Though Caleb isn’t sure as to why Nathan, of all people, would choose him to spend some time with and get to know, isn’t fully known; however, it’s an opportunity that Caleb will not pass-up. But when Caleb gets to Nathan’s place, he soon realizes that something is clearly up with this guy and not in a good way, either. Nathan drinks a whole heck of a lot, only to wake up the next day, work his ass off, and purge it all out of his system, only to then repeat the same pattern the next day. Not to mention that every time Nathan says something to Caleb, it ends up making the later feel incredibly uncomfortable in a manner that he doesn’t know how to discuss without offending Nathan, and possibly having him kicked-off this lovely land of paradise. And, let’s not forget to mention that Nathan has Caleb working with a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), who may or may not be able to think like most humans do.

So rarely does a sci-fi movie come out where it doesn’t feel like the same threads are constantly being traced over. While some movies definitely try to be as far-out as humanly possible to avoid these problems, they mostly end up stabbing themselves in their own feet and just being huge, insane piles of mess that can’t really be cleaned-up; they’re their for the whole world to see and not make any sense of. Sometimes, that’s how the creators behind it prefer it to be, and other times, you have Christopher Nolan, in that he wants you to understand what he’s throwing your way, but instead of doing so, you just roll with it and try to hope he takes you to the promised land.

A computer geek with no porn on his screen? Yeah, alright!

A computer geek with no porn on his screen? Yeah, alright!

Basically, what I am trying to say is that making an actual good sci-fi movie, without it seeming like all else that has come before, is a total challenge.

This is a challenge, however, that Ex Machina is more than willing to go up against, even if the themes of artificial intelligence has been practically done-to-death by now. However, writer/director Alex Garland knows and understands this, and rather than trying his hardest to break away and make some sort of everlasting message about the way technology and humans are alike, Garland keeps everything as ground-level and as simple as possible. Though the movie is definitely a sci-fi flick in nature, Garland seems more interested in the complex relationship between the characters here, and because of that, the movie’s far more than just “another flick with robots in it”.

It’s a strange oddity that truly does go wherever the hell it pleases, with absolute reckless abandon. Which definitely makes it all the more difficult to discuss without getting down to the nitty gritty of what happens, why and what Garland is trying to say. Trust me, I shall do my best in keeping the secrets hidden, but if a little something slips out, consider it not intentional; there’s just something about this movie that makes me want to reveal everything and anything about it. Yet, at the same time, I realize some people want to be treated to chock full of surprises, and it’s totally understandable.

Because honestly, surprises is what you’ll get here.

Garland keeps the movie bumping along in a way that feels like we’re leading towards something, but what that is, is never fully known. We’re told early on that Caleb is given a task that he can either complete, or not complete, but if he does go through with it, it will most likely change his life, as well as the rest of humanity’s. That said, throughout the whole duration of this movie, the weirder things appear to be, the more the reason behind Caleb’s trip begins to blur. And whereas some movies I would be ticked-off at the lack of closure, here, I just decided to roll with it and see where exactly Garland was going and whether or not any of it made sense.

To be honest, not much of it makes sense, but there’s something interesting about that. Rather than going through the motions of a story that could be literally told to anybody who hasn’t read sci-fi before and already predict the ending right away, Garland throws as many curve-balls our way as possible, without ever seeming like he’s just bored. The movie’s twist and turns come with mood; where, one second, you’ll be laughing at an extreme dance-formation, and the next second, terrified because of someone’s threatening demeanor. The movie literally goes from one end of the spectrum, to another, and Garland doesn’t seem to have a problem with not making any sense of it; he’s just having a grand time throwing us down so many different hallways.

And most of the unpredictability does come from the performances here, which are made all the more impressive by the fact that we hardly get anymore than four characters here. There’s maybe one or two side characters thrown in here at the beginning, but once Caleb gets to Nathan’s place, it’s literally just four people, all walking around the same place, talking to one another and testing each other’s limits. This in and of itself is fun, but the cast is so talented, that it goes one step further and makes these characters complex specimens.

For instance, Nathan, at the forefront, seems like the typical billionaire a-hole, until you realize he isn’t. He gets trashed all day, falls asleep, wakes up, works out, and is constantly making Caleb feel awkward by the way in how he’s trying to seem “cool” and “inviting”, but is doing just the absolute opposite. It’s pretty hard to be sly about telling a person where they can and cannot go in your house, but trust me, watching Nathan handle every conversation he has with Caleb, where they could have gone to learn more about one another and bond like most males do, will make you want to buy each and everyone of your friends a beer in hopes that the know your cool, and actually mean it.

There’s more to Nathan however, and whether or not it’s sinister, is totally left up to us to watch and see. Thankfully, as always, Oscar Isaac puts in solid work as a guy who always seems to be acting like a dick, but he just doesn’t know it. However, there’s still humanity to this guy where you can see that he may actually just be a lonely dude in need of some friend-time with anybody who is willing to partake in it. Or, he could just be a total d-bag. Either way, Oscar Isaac is mesmerizing just about every second and proves why, once again, he’s the one actor we should all be looking and paying attention to.

Caleb’s the perfect counterpart to Nathan, because he’s not just meek, mild and nervous, but because he’s a tad clueless to any sort of hostility that may, or may not be coming from Nathan’s side. Doomhnall Gleeson is great at showing this Caleb guy in a light that doesn’t make him just seem like a nerd, but a nerd that has a heart, and most importantly, has one that needs some sort of love in it. Wherever it comes from, he oh so desires it and to watch as he comes to the realization of this and still try his hand at understanding Nathan, is engaging.

It’s weird, but once again, cool to watch.

The one who truly does steal the spotlight from these two, however, is Alicia Vikander as Ava, a robot who can think and act like a human, but is still a work-in-progress. This is where I really have to hold myself back, but what I will say is this: Vikander is a revelation in this role. With only being able to use her expressive face, Vikander is able to make us feel something for this robot character, that we don’t even know is good or not; we know that she wants to be a human and to be freed, but to what extent is that? The questions here that lie, may be answered.

Then again, they may be not. Check out for yourself.

Consensus: Strange, surprising and unpredictable, Ex Machina deals with a lot of ideas, but lets them sit second-hand to the exciting performances for these well-written, complex characters, who help put the broader theme of everything into perspective.

8.5 / 10

Is it already too soon for Death Grips cover bands?

Is it already too soon for Death Grips cover bands?

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)

But if Tom Cruise can fly, how can Scientology not be magical?

Scientology has been around for as long as most people can remember and it doesn’t seem like it’ll ever go away. In the early days, when it was advertised as a “religion” by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, people flocked to find out what all of this hype was about. People’s lives were changing in ways they never quite expected and because of this, more and more people joined the church. But to ensure that they’d be let in, members would have to donate loads of money before ever setting one foot in the church, which is where most of the problems within first arose. Now, nearly 50 years after its conception, Scientology is running wild with controversy, even though it apparently has loyal followers in such celebrities as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Even despite the fact that numerous celebrities have left it and that there are reports of abuse that occurs both when you’re apart of it, and when you leave it, Scientology still has many loyal followers and only seems to be growing more and more each year. But will that ever end?

Alex Gibney is the kind of director our world needs nowadays. While he isn’t necessarily changing the world, he’s still shooting out at least two or three documentaries a year, opening our eyes to certain subjects we thought were already set-in stone and never seems to set his sights on one basic story-format that’s of interest to him. Surely, he likes controversy, but who can blame him? Especially when you have the chance to finally, once and for all, unveil what’s behind the curtain of Scientology, who wouldn’t jump at that opportunity?

Yeah, totally not the guy who Philip Seymour Hoffman portrayed in the Master?

Yeah, totally not the guy who Philip Seymour Hoffman portrayed in the Master?

And honestly, what else is there to be said about Scientology that hasn’t already been said? Sure, people boast on and on about its weird, cult-ish like tendencies, where people are literally brain-washed into thinking and acting certain ways, possibly all against their control, but do we really know Scientology in all its fullest-form? We can read a whole bunch about it, but does that really make everything said real, or better yet, justified?

This isn’t me trying to stand behind the Church of Scientology, this is me just bringing up a point that Gibney, unlike many directors before him, has finally been given the opportunity to pull back the covers and show us what Scientology is all about. But it isn’t just all skepticism, either – what we have here, on more than a few occasions, is first-hand accounts from people who were, at one time, Scientologists. Through them, we get to see, hear, and understand just what was going through their minds every step of the way. This helps allow for the material to give off a bit of authenticity that something like this so desperately needed to survive and compel the audience.

But while it would be easier to make fun of these people for even bothering to join such a shady religion to begin with, the movie never judges them for what they did. In fact, more often than not, it’s the people speaking who pass the most judgement on themselves, after they realize just what they were involved in and how they’re lives may forever be troubled because of the union they made. Such is the case with Jason Beghe, a solid character actor in his own right, who comes on the screen and seems like he’s not going to hide anything of what he actually feels or has to say about Scientology; he seems legitimately pissed-off and upset, and he has no one else to blame other than himself.

He knows this. He understands this. And he’s ready to move on.

As are most of the people shown here, discussing their time with Scientology and the aftermath of it all. But this is all just one aspect to the movie – an effective one, for sure, but one that doesn’t get one’s blood boiling quite as much as when Gibney starts to unravel some of the dirty, deep and dark secrets that Scientology has lying behind its huge, blue building. For instance, without saying too much, the fact that Scientology is able to get a tax-break for what it deems itself as “a religion”, is all the more despicable once you realize that the religious teachings they give, seem to hardly ever come. The only time somebody eventually figures out what Scientology is all about, is when they’ve literally been involved with the church for nearly a decade, and by then, they’re already a million dollars in-debt because of how many hand-outs the church demands you pay up-front, before any teachings are given.

This man is 25. Look at what Scientology does to you!

This man is 25. Look at what Scientology does to you!

This is especially strange, but nothing new we haven’t quite heard or read about before. Where the film really starts to turn things around is whenever it focuses on those two huge names who have been associated with Scientology since the early days of its fame: Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Travolta and Cruise, for the past few decades or so, have, essentially, become known as the poster boys of Scientology – they stand for everything Scientology has to offer and whenever somebody has something negative to say about it, they are the ones who step right up the front-lines to defend it like a bunch of desperate, but loyal soldiers. Most people are weirded-out by this, and while I’m not one to judge somebody based solely on what they hold near and dear to them as their “beliefs”, seeing what Gibney is able to uncover about their time spent with the church and what that means for those around them, puts a lot of things into perspective.

For instance, when we hear that Cruise’s marriage to Nicole Kidman was apparently broken-up due to the fact that Scientology didn’t like how her father was this huge religious nut overseas, it seems like nothing more than People magazine hearsay. But when we actually see the people who would have actually been involved with a decision like that, saying that it happened, how it happened, and why it needed to happen, it feels all too real to dismiss. Same goes for Travolta – while his situation may be a tad more sketchy concerning that most of what he has to defend about Scientology comes down to his own escapades, there’s still something creepy about seeing him literally as a prisoner with nowhere else to go, except just continue on and on with the rouse that he has so publicly kept-up for the longest time.

Though this comes off more as me just throwing my own two cents about what happens in this movie, rather than saying how I felt about it, there’s actually kind of a point behind that. Everything that’s revealed to us is as shocking as can be, but Gibney never forgets that there are actual people involved with this religion that need to possibly wake up, smell the cauliflower, and get out while they still can. Because if they don’t, not only will they be “disconnected” from the rest of their family, but they may never get any sort of life back.

Now, what kind of legal, law-abiding religion literally makes people feel that way?

Consensus: Shocking, effective, and always compelling, Going Clear reveals certain secrets about Scientology that need to be seen and heard to be believed, and will hopefully create a change. If not now, at least sometime in the future.

8.5 / 10 

Inside those walls, are things I am almost too frightened to think about.

Inside those walls, are things I am almost too frightened to picture.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Floodmagazine.com, Rolling Stone

Furious 7 (2015)

People can be violent, but cars are nearly worse.

The gang’s all back, but this time, it’s personal! Soon after their buddy is killed by a notorious thug by the name of Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) – a brother of one of their former foes – Dominic Torretto (Vin Diesel), Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) realize that it’s time to get vengeance in the only way they know best. But before doing so, they get a proposition from a special agent (Kurt Russell): Help him retrieve a piece of spy software from a terrorist (Djimon Hounsou) and he will more than make sure that Dom, Brian and the rest of the crew get that sweet taste of revenge that they’ve been clamoring for after all of this time has passed. However, there are other problems going on from within the group where Dom can’t seem to get Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) to remember their past together for what it was, nor can Brian seem to tear himself away from the wacky, wild life of crime that’s always attracted him for so long, even if he’s know settled-down with a wife (Jordana Brewster) and kid. Will the crew stay fast? Furious? Or neither?

So yeah, already going into this installment, there’s plenty to be discussed. With the tragic passing of Paul Walker nearly a-year-and-a-half ago, everything that was initially planned for Furious 7, from the release date, to the plot, were all scrapped and made anew. Which makes total sense. Walker wasn’t some sort of bit player in this franchise that showed up every so often to utter some witty line that would get the whole crowd laughing at how likable he is; he was, literally, the heart and soul of this franchise. Without him, it probably wouldn’t have gone on for as long as it has, which is both a blessing and a curse.

And they're not beating the hell out of each other, because.......?

And they’re not beating the hell out of each other, because…….?

A curse because the movie’s are dumb, over-the-top, ridiculous, and represent everything that is wrong with American’s society of masculinity. On the flip-side, though, it’s also a blessing because these movies, at least in the case for the last three installments, are so much fun, seem to never lose sight of just how illogical they are, and hardly ever apologize for it. Fast & Furious movies aren’t supposed to be taken seriously, and that’s where the real charm lies.

Hence why Paul Walker, all of his acting talents aside, was perfectly-suited for this franchise, no matter what it threw at him, or where it threw him.

With that being said, Furious 7 is a pretty raucous time. While I may not be saying anything new that hasn’t already been uttered by millions and millions of people from around the world, there’s still something interesting to note about a franchise in which the movies seem to constantly get better and one-up the one that came before it. Fast Five started this trend of the franchise going towards more action-fare, rather than just making it all about hot cars, hot men, hot women, and hot bodies, and the sixth film absolutely went for it all and, for the most part, came out on top.

While Furious 7 may not be better than the sixth movie, it’s still pretty damn close because it never forgets what it is: A mindless piece of action-fare that audiences will pay dozens of dollars for. Though this sounds easy (because, quite frankly, Michael Bay’s been doing it for the past two decades now), looking at some films, it’s actually not. Last year’s utterly forgettable and boring Need for Speed tried so desperately to pull-off the same sort of magic that the Fast franchise has been pulling off for quite some time and it failed miserably. That movie wanted to be silly, insane and ludicrous beyond belief, whereas the Fast movies are exactly that, but they don’t ever seem to be trying.

Not to mention that they actually do feature a dude a named Ludacris.

But because Furious 7 knows what it’s all about, it doesn’t try to pretend it’s something it isn’t. Though there are a chock-full of scenes dedicated to these thinly-written, one-dimensional characters breaking down all sorts of barriers and getting dramatic with one another, these scenes are quickly dismissed as soon as they show up. Also, too, it makes sense that we need at least some sort of character-development to help make things seem fully rounded-out and not just *crash*, *bang*, *boom* all of the darn time. While this would have been fun, let’s be realistic here: No movie franchise with its seventh-installment is going to totally shelve its characters for their beyond-nuts action sequences.

Just get used to it and move on. That’s what I did and it worked well.

It worked well because, once I realized that every problem these characters had didn’t really matter much in the grander scheme of things, the action just got a whole lot better and more exciting. Though you’d think these movies would have already run-out of ideas on how to set-up action sequences and still, somehow, be able to utilize automobiles in some sort of fashion, director James Wan proves you damn wrong. With scenes depicting cars flying through the sky with parachutes and even scenes where cars go flying through three buildings, this franchise continues to give us something new and fun to feast our eyes and ears onto.

Not a Rock Bottom, but it'll do.

No Rock Bottom, but it’ll do.

And honestly, the sky is the limit from here on out. No matter how many times this movie tries to break actual science, it won’t lose any bit of respect because the rules have already been set-in place: There are no rules. Cars can literally fly through the sky; people can literally shoot their guns till the cows come home and never run out of ammunition; jets can literally glide around downtown LA without there being hardly any interference from the Army of any sort. Literally, anything can happen in these movies and because of that, they never lose an ounce of momentum; they just continue to build up and up on it some more until it feels like, you know, we may have had enough adrenaline for one day.

And really, the same rules apply to the characters, as well. Like I said before, none of these characters here are inherently interesting or well-written, but they exist in a universe that loves them all so very much, that it’s hard to look down upon them for being “types”. Like the movies they exist in, you just accept them for what they are, let them do their thing and move on.

It’s quite easy, really.

Meaning, when you accept them, you have to accept Vin Diesel’s garbled growling; Michelle Rodriguez’s resting bitch face; Dwayne Johnson to be wearing Under Amour every time he is on-screen and trying so hard not to break kayfabe; Jordana Brewster just being “there”; Ludacris and Tyrese to be the goofy sidekicks that everyone can rely on for comedy and not really anything serious to contribute to the plot; and, most of all, Paul Walker’s ability to just be the “everyman” in every scene he’s in. Because even though newcomers to this franchise like Tony Jaa, Djimon Hounsou, Nathalie Emmanuel, Ronda Rousey, Kurt Russell, and especially, a deliciously evil Jason Statham all acquit themselves perfectly into this movie, strut their stuff and show us what they’re more than able to bring to the creative table, it’s Walker who still leaves the most lasting impression. He isn’t trying to, either – he just is.

And somehow, there’s a small bit of beauty in that.

Consensus: Like every other installment of the franchise, Furious 7 is as ridiculous and nonsensical as you can get, but still a whole bunch of fun, treating fans to everything that they could ever want with one of these movies, and then some, especially with the emotional tribute to Paul Walker – the one true face of this franchise.

8 / 10

Ride on, brotha.

Ride on, brotha.

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

Donnie Brasco (1997)

Forget about it?

New York mobster Lefty (Al Pacino) walks into his usual diner, starts talking up a storm with some guy named “Don the Jeweler” (Johnny Depp), figures out that the ring he just bought his girlfriend was a Fugazi, takes him out to find the guy, gets his money back, and badda-bing, badda-boom, the deal is done. However, Lefty doesn’t want to just say “bye” to Don and be done with him forever – he wants him to be apart of his mob, walk him through the ranks so that one day, Donnie will be the new crime boss that everybody obeys and looks up to. Donnie has those aspirations too, but the problem is that his real name is Joseph Pistone and he’s not all that he seems to be. Rather, he’s an FBI informant that’s been working the streets for about two years now, and he’s getting more and more tied into this underground life, and leaving his other life, the one with his wife (Anne Heche) and kids, on the back-burner as if it almost doesn’t exist.

I honestly could not tell you how many times I’ve seen this movie. I want to say the perfect, rounded-up amount is probably ten-and-a-half times, but I can’t be too sure because it’s probably a whole lot more than what I can remember. Hell, probably a couple of drunken-views may have happened in there as well. Either way, whatever the total amount is, doesn’t matter, because each and every time I’ve watched this flick, not only have I liked it even more, but I get to see more and more about it, especially since, as a film fanatic, my eyes have been opened a bit wider to what makes a movie work, and what doesn’t.

"Ew, fugetaboutit!"

“Ew, fugetaboutit!”

However, I still have yet to call this movie a “favorite” of mine, and here’s exactly why: The problem I have with this movie is that, after all of the times I’ve seen this and plenty other movies of the same nature, I’ve come to realize that the “FBI-informant” story has all been dead by now. We get it; whenever you take a regular, FBI agent, throw him into a world where he has to have that one identity and nothing else, then most likely, that dude’s going to get thrown in there too deep. It’s what we see with every undercover-cop flick, and it doesn’t make it all the better or more original. It’s just there.

But there is that one aspect to this movie that makes that problem sort of go away: The drama involved here between the characters and the situation we have on our hands here. Everybody in this flick is essentially a cliché of what it’s like to be apart of the mob. Greased, slicked-back hair? Check. A bunch of Italian, mobster slang used that makes no sense? Double check. Paying for a coffee or a drink with a wad of cash? Way too many checks. An over-the-top scene of an act of violence to prove how much you do not want to get all tangled-up in with the mob? You got it. People getting whacked? Well now, would it be a mobster movie if it didn’t at least have one or two or more scenes that include that act?

I’ll allow for that last, hypothetical question to rest in your mind.

So, with all of that said, you see where I’m going with this? If not, follow through. The aspect behind this movie that makes it work, despite all of the obvious conventions and happenings of the usual mobster movie, is that there’s actual, real-life emotion involved with this story and the characters that inhabit it. Rather than making Joe, or “Donnie”, the type of FBI informant that’s way too in over his head, is a bit of a bastard for throwing his family to the side and focusing a little bit too much attention on the task at hand, the movie shows him off as being a troubled-soul, yet, one that knows what mission he has to complete, and to do it by any means necessary. Sure, he has to get his hands dirty a couple of times and may even have to pull off some risky moves of his own, but he knows that he has to get the job done and the movie paints him more as a regular-guy, who just so happened to stick to his guns, in more ways than one. I don’t want to call him a “hero” per se, but I do want to call him an inspiration to most people who feel like they can’t go through something because the shit’s too deep or too dangerous. And I’m not just talking about FBI informants – I’m talking about anybody, dammit!

Then, something strange with this movie begins to happen: You start to feel a bit wrapped-up in this world just as much as Joe does. Once Joe realizes that not all of these mobster-figures are as bad or as dastardly as they may seem from the outside, he begins to wonder whether or not he should fully go through with it, and if he does decide to actually say, “Yeah, arrest all their asses”, he still wonders whether or not it’s the right thing to do or if he should leave a couple people out of it. It’s a problem for us, almost as much as it is a problem for Joe, and it gets you more and more involved with the material, regardless of if you know how it all turns out. Obviously no major Hollywood production is going to fund a movie where the real-life protagonist gets killed, but you still feel like any chance the dude has to lose his cover, he will, and become a victim of it so.

Don't worry, honey. Just fugettaboutit.

Don’t worry, honey. Just fugettaboutit.

Very smart writing and directing on both sides of the camera, but in front of it all is the two stars we have on our hands here, none other than Johnny Depp and Al Pacino themselves. This was the first movie where I think Johnny Depp really broke-out of his shell, showed us that he could actually “act”, and, despite what his good looks may have you believe, make it seem like he’s a real person, with real problems, marital ones and whatnot. Depp’s character may go through the usual trip of where he gets in way too deep and can barely get out without keeping his hands clean, but it’s Depp himself who keeps his head above the water, allowing us to believe in him no matter how scary certain situations may get for him. There’s a real sense of likability and regularity to Depp here, that I wish he would just go back to, at least one more time. That is, before he gets back together with Gore Verbinski and starts acting all nutty and cuckoo again. Why Johnny?!?! Why not come back to the real world?!?!

As great as Johnny is here, though, he’s definitely not the one who walks away with the flick. Leave that recognition to Al Pacino, playing, yet again, another mob boss that has a bit of anger-issues and problems on the inside, but keeps them more bottled-in than what we’re used to seeing with this type of character, or even the way Pacino usually plays them. What’s so great about Pacino playing Lefty is that, we get that this guy is not perfect and definitely has some control issues that get in the way of his better-judgement at times, but we still feel like he’s a good guy, underneath the phis-age and all. In fact, we know it, it just rarely comes out in the most obvious, hackneyed way you’d expect from a movie such as this. Pacino yells and hollers at times, but he keeps it surprisingly subdued and quiet as well, and that’s probably some of the best parts of this movie. Actually, mainly the ones with Depp and Pacino together, because you can tell that they form a bond that’s like a father-son combo, but also one that feels like it could be best friends as well. It’s sad to see them together, but you can’t help but feel something for them both, especially Lefty, who feels like an old man who will just never, ever get it right in the world that he lives in. Poor guy.

Same can sort of be said for the rest of the rag-tag mobsters that these two hang with. Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, and James Russo all play members of their mob and all do great jobs with the roles, especially Madsen who gives us his bad-boy charm that we all know and love, but also shows a bit more sympathy underneath it all, as if he too has something to prove to the people he surrounds himself with and aspires to be in the same shoes of one day. They’re all characters you’d expect to hate right off the bat, but they surprisingly have more heart and charm to them then you’d ever want to see in a flick like this. Just like the character of Joe’s stay-at-home-wife, played to perfection by Anne Heche, who not only shows us a real hard-edged woman that isn’t taking any shit from her hubby, but is also easy to sympathize with, despite her being a bit of a nag for bothering her husband about a job that not only pays the bills and gets the kids to school, but she knew about when she married him. She should be the vain of your humanity, but she’s written very realistically and performed very well by Heche herself, an actress who doesn’t get as much credit as she should.

Consensus: Though on page, Donnie Brasco should not work and be considered as conventional and predictable as they come, it surprisingly becomes a more emotional, compelling trip about what happens when a man gets too deep, can’t quite get himself out right away, but still has the screws in tight enough to get through it all. Sounds corny, but in the hands of Depp, Pacino, and the rest of the cast and crew, it’s very far from.

8.5 / 10

"I'm serious. Just forget about it."

“I’m serious. Just forget about it.”

Photos Courtesy of: Movpins

After the Wedding (2007)

Never be the odd-man-out at a wedding.

Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) is something of a loner that spends his time in the company of orphans at the shelter he runs in Bombay. As much as Jacob is attached to these children and tries so hard to make everything the absolute best for them all, he still can’t get past the fact that the place needs money, and needs it quick before the place is all closed up and the kids are thrown out onto the streets, where they are most likely going to be left to rot and die, or lead a life of sex, drugs, and crime. Either way, it’s a crummy situation. That all begins to change when Jacob receives a call from a very rich man from Denmark named Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård), who shows a slight amount of interest in donating money to this orphanage. Reasons why? Well, Jacob, as concerned and curious as he may be, decides to venture out to Denmark to see what this fast-cat is all about and realizes that there may be a little more to this man’s deal than originally thought of before.

In all honesty, I can’t go on any further with this flick’s plot because that would just spoil the mystery behind what’s happening here. While everything seems so crystal clear and simple on the surface, there’s more shadings underneath all of this and rather than surprising us with twists to keep us interested, the movie instead shows us just how these secrets can come out in a way that tells us more about ourselves, much rather than the actual secrets themselves.

"We are supposed to be smiling in this movie, right?"

“We’re supposed to be smiling in this movie, right?”

Co-writer/director Susanne Bier knows that her audience should expect anything from her movies, and does so in a way where it doesn’t seem manipulative or random at any point in the movie. Once one big reveal is shown to us, another one comes, then another, and another, and even when we think we’re done, another huge one shows up and really blows our mind. Each and every twist to the story isn’t used as a way to keep our minds on the story at all times, as if everything else about it blew, but more as a way to show us that life is unpredictable at times, realistically so too. Once you think you have the story figured out, Bier gives us something new, and hell, more shocking to deal with. However, it’s not us who has to deal with these twists the most – it’s the characters in the flick who have to and that’s where most of the brutality of this story comes into play.

I don’t mean to say “brutality” in the way that it’s disturbing and gruesome to watch; I mean to say that sometimes, no matter how long this story goes on for, you always feel like your emotions and your heart are constantly being hammered away at. Bier does this in a way to where we feel the same exact feelings and ideas that these characters are, and doesn’t allow us to let up one bit, even when it seems like everything with this story is all fine and dandy. Also, the characters in this movie all serve a purpose for knowing one another and that’s what makes the twists all the better because instead of making the movie seem like a twisty and turny thriller of some sorts, it becomes more of a stepping-stool for these characters to get to know one another better and connect with each other more than they ever thought was possible. It’s more beautiful than it is harrowing to watch, although I do have to say that the flick itself can get pretty damn depressing at certain points.

Honestly though, I don’t mean to use the word “depressing” in a bad way neither.

Stories like this should be sad, but for the sole reason that their honest and realistic. Not used in a way where it’s like we’re watching a melodramatic soap opera, where the creators behind-the-camera just want to see how surprised we can be by the stupid roads the stories go down. Sometimes the movie’s bleakness does become unbearable to watch and grip, but it’s all the more rewarding because it feels like a story worth telling, especially since it’s about the people around us that make up our lives and round us out to who we are today, even if we don’t quite take a knowing to it just yet. With time though, like with anything in life, we get to realize what’s important and what’s bollocks. And most likely, the people that you meet in your life are more part of the former. However, there are also members of the latter as well, so don’t be fooled by my sure surprise of optimism.

For Mads Mikkelsen here, this is less of a showy role for the guy as he gets the chance to play it soft, quiet, subdued, and subtle when the movie calls on him to be, but is totally able to unleash the raw-fire emotions when he needs to as well. Any type of feeling that Mikkelsen has to convey with this sweet-natured character of Jacob, he achieves and does it so honestly, that I wouldn’t be surprised if Mads himself cried a little bit on-screen. He would never tell us, but I wouldn’t be surprised either.

If you're as rich as him, you could afford to have this mug all day too.

If you’re as rich as him, you could afford to have this mug all day. too.

However, as good as Mads is (which, trust me, he is) the one who really steals the show from him is Rolf Lassgård as the surprisingly generous billionaire with a long, extending hand: Jørgen. At first when we meet Jørgen, the dude seems like a bit of a dick. He’s rich, pompous, throws his money around, and seems to be up to same shaky business-dealings with this Jacob dude; so shaky, that you begin to wonder just what movie this is going to turn out to be. That is, until we finally get ahold of who this character is, what his intentions are, and what he’s been meaning to do all of this time, and we realize that he’s actually a humble guy, if a very messed-up one, both emotionally and physically.

Despite me never seeing him in anything else before this flick, Lassgård shocked the hell out of me with how far into this character he could go. He shows all sides to this dude that was ever humanly possible of seeing, and then some. We see him as a drunken-galoot that can’t hold his liquor in, even when it’s in the afternoon; as a con man that’s less than subtle with his manipulative ways; as the rich and inspired business man that’s able to make a room smile and cheerful in a click of his watch; as the loving and caring family man, who not only is always there for his wife, but wants nothing but the best for his kids, even if they don’t see the bleakness of life coming right at them, straight in the face; and last, but certainly not least, as the type of guy you can’t help but love, even as all of his motives for the things that he does come crashing at his feet. Lassgård is perfect in this role, lights the screen up every chance he gets, and made me cry my eyes out, just by being there.

Take for instance, the last scene with him. I won’t give it away, but I will tell you that it’s going to hit a soft spot that you can’t help but watch, but at the same time, try to hide away from as well. Seriously, he’ll get you and that’s not to take any credit away from Sidse Babett Knudsen and Stine Fischer Christensen either – it’s just that it’s so obvious where the heart, body, and soul of this film lies within.

Which is why you shouldn’t judge a person by the size of their wallet. Or something.

Consensus: Occasionally wallowing in its own sorrow a bit too much, After the Wedding still hits its emotional-marks with its upsetting story, as well as the great performances from the cast, especially Lassgård.

8.5 / 10

All the happiness in the world: Ends here.

All the happiness in the world, sadly, ends here.

Photo’s Credit to: Goggle Images

Mommy (2014)

Say what you will about Freud, the dude was definitely getting at something.

After her son gets expelled from his school for starting a fire and injuring another student, Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval) is forced to take him out and raise him on her own. The only problem is that young Steven (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is a bit of a hot head, who not only battles with ADHD, but is also going through the most challenging transition period of any guy’s life: Going from being a boy, to becoming a man. Because of this, Steven usually lashes out uncontrollably at those around him, is unpredictable as to when his mood will change, and generally doesn’t know how to love his mother and treat her with the respect she deserves. That looks like it may all change, however, once their neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), shows up and begins tutoring Steven on such subjects as math, English, and, according to Steven at least, sex. But even she has a dark side that may get in the way of the relationship between Die and Steven, or may even help them reinvigorate it. It’s all sort of up in the air.

Xavier Dolan makes me mad. Not because his movies are incredibly pretentious, or because they seem to all deal with this idea of self-entitlement, but because he’s literally three years older than me, already has five movies to his name, and has been granted all sorts of critical acclaim since day one. If there’s somebody out there in this world who I loathe more, honestly, I don’t know if I’d be able to find them – Xavier Dolan is my arch-nemesis, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know this, nor even care.

The face of the future, folks. Meaning, we're all boned.

The face of the future, folks. Meaning, we’re all boned.

Then again though, he does make some good movies, so I can’t be too upset with him.

And that’s what he has here with Mommy; a film that has garnered so much love and praise already, that I feel like me writing a review about it nearly six months after the fact won’t do much, but it’s been a movie on my mind since the day I first saw it, so why not? Because with Mommy, sure, it’s a great movie, but is it as perfect as everybody has been praising it as being? Definitely not, but there’s something interesting to that negativity. People haven’t really been upset with Mommy because it throws in there certain ideas about incest, sexual abuse, and even mental illness, it’s more that people have been upset with the movie for not having anything more to really say about it.

Which is, yes, definitely true. For the longest time, it seems like Dolan has something neat, or interesting to say about all of these themes and while it starts off as such, it ends up circling around saying the same thing, again and again. That these people are all inherently messed-up from all sorts of various problems, Dolan uses them as a way to show us that all you need is love, heart and humanity to get you through any sort of situation. It’s definitely a sweet idea, but it’s one that doesn’t necessarily break down the walls of what we’ve already seen or heard before – it’s basically just Dolan letting us know that people are people, and that’s it.

But even while Mommy doesn’t have anything new to say, it’s still engaging and incredibly watchable. My better-part is containing myself from the uttering the word “entertaining”, because it’s painstakingly clear that Dolan doesn’t want this piece to perceived in that way, but that’s sort of what happens when you put all of the right ingredients together and just let them do your thing. When you have wacky, unpredictable characters, thrown into a story that deals with their relationships together, have great performers, and toss in the Oedipus complex for good measure, then needless to say, there’s going to be some fun to be had.

Not just because it’s funny to see how wacky, unpredictable people interact with one another, but because Dolan never judges them or puts them on a peddle-stool. He literally sees them for who they are – troubled, messed-up, emotionally-repressed human beings who are just about ready to explode with anger and tension. That’s what really keeps the heart of this film at level with all of the other crazy shenanigans it portrays these characters of getting into; rather than showing them off as crazy loonies that can’t handle any bit of their emotions, Dolan instead shows us that what they’re going through, together as well as separate, is what you or I could be going through, too.

The only difference here is that they’re a bit nuttier.

The girl next door, except that she ain't no girl! She a woman! Look out, younger boys!

The girl next door, except that she ain’t no girl! She’s a full-grown woman! Look out, younger boys!

And with that said, mostly everybody here is played up to a certain level of nuttiness that actually works for the movie, rather than being so incredibly over-the-top and working against it. As Die, Anne Dorval gives a ruthless performance of a woman who clearly loves her son, but also knows that he can be a total animal and needs to control him more and more. They have a sweet relationship, that sometimes does borderline almost too sweet, but it’s also one that’s believable and doesn’t make you think that there aren’t real life mother-son duos like this in real life. Dorval shows us that this Die woman clearly wants her son to be safe, normal, and even slightly sane, but also knows that it all comes with a price and is sometimes willing to let go of her morals because of that. This transition should make her detestable, but it doesn’t, and actually works for helping to keep her character humane, rather than a caricature of what Dolan wants to show us as “the evil mom”.

Another character who is sort of in the same field as Die, is Suzanne Clément’s Kyla, who seems like there’s something downright deep and disturbing about her, but what that is, we never really know. That mystery about her is what keeps her mostly interesting, but also the fact that she genuinely cares for Steven and Die, even when she’s abandoning her own family because, also makes her feel like someone who is easy to care about. Even if her problems with stuttering and repression continue to act up, she still seems like a person that, at the end of the day, needs a nice, cozy, and warm hug to let her know everything will end up all right in the end.

Same goes for Steven, who is played with absolute ferocity by youngin’ Antoine-Olivier Pilon. As most old people say, “That kid’s chock full of piss and vinegar”, and that is exactly the case with Steven; he’s always spirited, clearly fuming with some sort of angst, and makes it seem like he’ll hump anything that walks, so long as they return the favor (sort of like me). In all honesty, his character is probably the most stereotypical out of anyone else here, but Pilon makes it worthwhile because he is constantly all over the place, making us wonder what he’s going to say or do next, and just who the hell he’s going to make feel uncomfortable in any certain situation. Like everyone else here, he’s a ticking time bomb that’s just about ready to explode, but when and where that happens, is constantly left up in the air and it’s always compelling because of that.

But don’t worry, Dolan, I won’t say “entertaining”, even if that’s exactly what it is.

Consensus: All artistry aside, Mommy is a constantly engaging, if somewhat familiar story about challenging people, thrown into a challenging situation, who are all just trying to make it out of it alive, and with some degree of sanity left in them.

8 / 10

Mommy knows best. Trust me.

Mommy knows best. Trust me.

Photo’s Credit to: IMDB, AceShowbiz

The Lives of Others (2006)

Spy gadgets – just another thing the Germans got us beat on!

Party-loyalist Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) hopes to boost his career when assigned the task of collecting evidence against the playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his girlfriend, celebrated theater actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler’s bosses believe that they are up to no good and in order to fully indict them on all of the wrong-doings, he must find some crucial evidence in where they seem to be participating in acts that go directly against the country. But what he finds out about both of them, doesn’t just change their lives, but his own as well.

You see it in almost every film that ever takes place in Germany, during the 80’s: People were constantly being watched by a “Big Brother” government. We’ve all seen it done before, but there’s something about Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s approach to this story that gives this one a little extra twist, and also something to really hold onto, even if you still hate the Germans for all of those terrible years. We all knew they had their evil ways, but let’s just try and get past it all for the better of movies!

Shall we?

Those eyes, though.

Just another day at the office; where everybody’s pissed-off all of the time.

Anyway, what was solid about von Donnersmarck’s direction here is that he’s given the rough task of taking all these different stories, and finding a way to mesh them all together to create one, cohesive whole. He takes on the love-triangle perfectly and shows us why one lady would get stuck up in such a situation such as this; then he takes on the spy story where we see this one man doing his job, sometimes to the fullest extent; and then, underneath it all, is a taut, suspenseful thriller that comes around in a big way during the last-half or so. What starts off as a neat, little character drama, soon turns into a full-out thrill-ride, but isn’t a drastic change of pace that seems forced. Because von Donnersmarck treats everything lightly and takes his time going through all of the details that we need to, or should at least know to make ourselves more familiar with what’s going on, the movie can be followed easier and therefore, creates more tension.

Some people believe that in order for a movie to be tense and suspenseful, that the director behind it has to keep the audience in the dark as much as possible, without lending a helping hand at any time. A part of me wants to believe that, but the other part of me believes that there needs to be at least some hand-holding to make sure that both the audience, and the movie itself, are on the same page. Movies such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are going to great lengths to make sure that the audience doesn’t fully know everything that’s going down, just so that it can pull more and more tricks once the actual-reveal comes up at the end, and it’s annoying. It’s deceitful for no reason. Here, however, von Donnersmarck gives us just enough to understand and take in for ourselves, all before he throws us for a loop.

He cares for the audience. He wants us to know just what the hell is actually happening, rather than just throwing us into something and saying, “good luck”. Not saying that there is anything wrong with movies that are a tad vague on details for the betterment of the mystery that’s possibly at the center, but to just make sure that the audience doesn’t know what’s going, because it’s fun, isn’t that; it’s bothersome. Which is why when you get a movie that gives its audience plenty to take in and make their own assumptions about, it’s quite a treat.

If only more and more thrillers were like this. Even if the movie does have a bit of a languid pace, there’s still something to hold onto here and it works in the movie’s favor.

Krauts! Hit the deck!

Krauts! Hit the deck!

Where the movie works though, too, is in the performances and how they actually bring a human-element to a story that, quite frankly, needed one to make it come around full circle. As the sneaky playwright Sebastian Koch does a solid enough job to where he seems innocent enough. At times, he is a little bland since we never understand what he wants to do with his life, other than just talk a whole bunch of crap on East Germany, but overall, he seems like a human, rather than just a character this movie needed to enhance the plot. As his girlfriend, Martina Gedeck gets a bit more to do as we see her back-story come out in certain spots that is, at times, disturbing. But because of this, we feel more for her and the situations that she’s sadly been thrown into.

However, the one that really steals this movie and gains our attention the most, is also the most tragic figure of this whole movie. Late actor, Ulrich Mühe, plays Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, a government spy who has basically took on this assignment to look a lot more skilled with his job. Even though he starts off as a total d-bag, who seems like he just wants to do his job and make anybody pay who gets in his way, he actually becomes more sympathetic as time goes on and you realize that he’s doing more for this couple, then any of them would have ever expected. It’s pretty impressive what this guy can do with a character that just seems like your stereotypical a-hole right from the start, but totally change up our minds on him very quickly, just by a few good deeds here and there. They all have reasons behind them, too, and aren’t just done because the guy wants to be a good Samaritan, but they’re reasons I won’t divulge into here for the sake of spoilers.

Overall though, it’s a downright shame that Mühe died so soon after this because after this hit the states, the roles would have just come pouring in for him.

Consensus: With its languid pace, the Lives of Others may run on a tad longer than it maybe should have, but given the cast’s performances and the story itself, there’s a lot to enjoy here, as well as be effected by.

8.5 / 10 

The perfect German couple. Gosh, they are so screwed.

The perfect German couple. Gosh, they are so screwed.

Photo’s Credit to: Thecia.Com.Au

The Visitor (2008)

Live life by the drum.

Widower Professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) lives a mundane existence as a college economics professor. He gives fails students who don’t deserve to fail; he’s only doing piano because of his long, lost wife’s talent; and generally, he’s just a dick to everyone and anyone around him. However, when going off into the city where he hopes to relax and possibly wallow in his own misery, he stumbles upon two illegal immigrants who have taken up shop in his place. At first, he’s upset, but as time goes on, he befriends them and even goes so far as to help them with all of his might when they’re discovered by U.S. immigration authorities.

Back in 2008, I remember actually hearing little things about this movie here and there, but nothing that was worth jumping up and down for. Then the 2009 Academy Awards came around and everybody was wondering, “Just who the hell is Richard Jenkins and what the hell is this movie he’s been nominated for?”. I’ll admit it, I was one of those people and needless to say, I can totally see why the Academy chose to give this guy and this film some notice. It’s actually a nice, little indie.

It would be hopelessly romantic, however, it's an indie, so go away heartfelt emotions!!

It would be hopelessly romantic, however, it’s an indie, so go away heartfelt emotions!

Which, honestly, is no surprise considering it comes from writer/director Thomas McCarthy, a guy who, time and time again, proves that he can be a master at making very subtle, heart-warming indies. After seeing his two other flicks (The Station Agent, Win Win), I’ve begun to realize that this guy has a style, without ever really having a style at all. He shoots all of his films like natural stories of a human-being; doesn’t try to do anything fancy or flashy with his camera; and much rather instead, allows for the story tell itself. This usually works for him because his stories are usually so rich that you can’t help but feel as involved with them as the character’s in it themselves. Overall though, it’s lovely to see a director not only let the story tell itself, but never really delude from that story either and keep it on that subject so we know how they feel, what they feel, and all of the other little things about them in between.

This is also a film where McCarthy seems to be tackling bigger issues here than just the levels of love, friendship, and trains. Here, he actually seems to be making some very valid points about the post-9/11 America that we all live in and it kind of made me think a little bit about how I sort of looked at people from other races, heritages, and countries. Whenever we see a person that’s not from this country, and is from an Arabic one, we look at them, and without a single second to think, all of a sudden get absolutely paranoid.

I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done it.

Fact is though, we don’t know these people as well as we think we do, as we mostly forget that they too, like us, are human beings. Ones who are ripe with feelings, emotions, and all of that nonsensical baloney that us humans can’t ever seem to get a grip on, no matter how hard we try. McCarthy doesn’t just shove these ideas or thoughts down our throats, however, much rather, he just allows for us to pick up on them as the movie goes on along. McCarthy trusts us and it’s very noble, on his part.

But if there was a problem to be found here in this movie, it’s that his direction could sometimes get a tad bit too subtle for his own good. In fact, I’d say that it sometimes seems like he’s cheating the audience out of something, all because he wants to take the higher road. Which, dealing with a simple story such as this, is understandable, but when you want your story to deliver on the emotional-cues, hook, line, and sinker, you sort of have to give us a little piece of that sentimental moment to fully put us over the hill. McCarthy, once again, strays away from doing that and instead, is relying on us to make the emotions work, but it sometimes takes away from even more of an emotional wallop.

Visitor2

Michonne?!? In love?!? No zombies?!?

Regardless of all that though, if there’s one thing that the Visitor should always and forever be remembered for, it’s that it showed the bigger, brighter world out there just who the hell Richard Jenkins actually is. However, that’s not saying that before the Visitor, nobody knew who the hell Jenkins was in the first place, because he was constantly everywhere. He was the go-to character actor that you could always rely on to make a movie better, and it was a nice change-of-pace to see him here, actually getting the chance to revel in the spotlight a bit.

That aside, Jenkins’ performance is quite great and was definitely deserving of the Oscar nomination, as we really see this man for what he is – a sad, lonely and relatively depressed old man who has given up on life, basically, but hasn’t given up on it so much so that he’s willing to let himself go. He still wants to try on and live on, even if it is for the sake of allowing for his wife’s legacy to live on vicariously through him. At the beginning, we’re practically told that he’s a mean, grumpy old dude, but as time progresses on and we get to see him interact with those around him, we realize that there is something sweet, lovely and charming to Walter Vale. While he isn’t a perfect person, he’s still one that you could meet on the street, have a chat with, and go on about your day. You don’t need to think about him all that much, but you’ll remember that you at least had the conversation with him in the first place.

Much like Richard Jenkins himself: Always present and lovely to be around, although, you’ll still be asking, “Where the hell did he go?”

Consensus: The Visitor gets by solely on the power and complexity of Jenkins’ lead performance, which helps to allow Thomas McCarthy’s script to reach new, emotional-heights, even if he does cheat the audience out of them quite a bit too many times.

8 / 10

Slappin' da drum, man.

Slappin’ da drum.

Photo’s Credit to: Thecia.Com.Au

Citizenfour (2014)

The closest you can get to a computer-geek, without losing any bit of your popularity. Maybe.

After making a few documentaries that put her on the NSA’s “watch list”, Laura Poitras soon found herself chatting online with an anonymously mysterious person who went by the name of “Citizenfour”. According to mystery person, they had acquired, in their possessions, numerous and numerous amounts of confidential sources, documents, etc. that would show the government to be spying on its citizens. Poitras doesn’t know what to do with this information, except to just take it in for herself. That is all until she finds out that Citizenfour wants to meet somewhere in Hong Kong, which she accepts, although she enlists the help of investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald to help her seize this moment once and for all. Once Poitras and Greenwald walk into some high-class Hong Kong hotel suite, they meet the man we would all know as Edward Snowden, who would then let them know a little bit about his life, what he has, and what he wants to do from here on out.

And the rest, as older-generations like to casually drop into conversation, is history; and by “history”, I mean what we are currently dealing with in the past two years now having known what Snowden found and revealed to the whole wide world about his findings. To be honest, too, there’s some problem with that known knowledge and this movie – while the movie likes to think that it’s dropping absolutely shocking, knee-shattering information to its audience, the fact remains, we already know what the government has been doing. Why? Well, because Snowden himself got on TV to tell us all, once and for all.

Boo to the guy on the right! More of the guy on the left! (And no, that's not a metaphor)

Boo to the guy on the right! More of the guy on the left! (And no, that’s not a metaphor.)

While some of you may think this isn’t a fair criticism, especially considering you could say that about half of the documentaries made about notable, infamous figures in today’s day and age, there’s something different to be said for a movie that thinks it’s showing us something new, something revolutionary, but in all honesty, actually isn’t. We know what Snowden found; we know what’s going on with his life nowadays; and we know how the rest of the world would react this newfound information. Nothing else is all that shocking.

So, for maybe the first-half of this movie, I was left uninterested. Uninterested by what this movie was trying to do with its story, how long it actually took to get to meet Snowden, and almost irritated by how Poitras herself manipulatively used bits and pieces of Nine Inch Nails to add tension to what is, essentially, just a bunch of typed-letters on the screen for us to read. As a director, no matter what sort of film you’re working with, feel that you have to add music in the background to make an audience feel a certain way, with a certain emotion, you’ve already lost some of the battle. You seem more obvious than before and, at least from my standpoint, make it hard for the audience to bounce back.

However, that’s what shocked me so much about Citizenfour, because it actually did bounce back. And quite effectively, too, may I add.

Where this movie ends as an informational-piece, it soon then begins as a small, but engaging character-study of one person we like to think we know so well by how the media portrays him as being, but in reality, actually haven’t the slightest clue about. Sure, some of us may think we know Edward Snowden because he, like most of us, is an innocent, seemingly fragile computer-geek that, by all his might and will, saw stuff that he didn’t like and went as far as to expose those wrongdoings to the rest of the world. In his own, maybe unintentional way, Snowden has been declared a “superhero” among sorts, and it’s because of this title, most of us think that he’s like your or I, just with more computer-skills and obviously a lot more paranoid.

Snowden lookin' sassy. Look out, ladies. No seriously, lookout. The government will be after your ass quicker than you can say "web leaks".

Snowden lookin’ sassy. Look out, ladies. No seriously, lookout. The government will be on your ass quicker than you can say “web leaks”.

But what Poitras and Citizenfour as a whole does, and does well, is that it removes all of the stereotypical bullshit about Snowden and reveals to us a very layered, meager and mild guy that, like all of us, just wants the world to be a safer place. Not just for himself, but for everyone else. And what Poitras does well is that it allows for him to tell his story, without any cheap, cinematic short-cuts to be seen; it’s just him, his bland, black T-shirt, his glasses, his fuzzy, frazzled hair, his jeans, his laptop, and his never-ending barrage of stories to tell about what he saw, what he wants to do, and what’s next in this possible plan of his. Occasionally, we’ll get a side-swipe by Greenwald (which were the worst parts of this movie, for me, but that’s just personal preference because I despise him oh so very much), and the Guardian intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill (who I just wanted to give an big, endearing hug by the end of this), but for the most part, it’s Snowden’s story to tell and he’s willing to go deep and dirty with it.

He definitely backs away from giving certain details about his family, his girlfriend, and just where exactly he lives, but that’s all understandable. Maybe one day, in the near-future, when, hopefully, most of the dust has settled, we’ll get a straight-up, no-frills, take-no-names documentary that digs deep into Snowden’s actual life, but for now, and mostly for security purposes, this is as close as we’ll get to seeing Snowden, warts and all. Which works, because not only is Snowden an compelling presence here, in that he is so nerdy and kind that you’d much rather take him out of a locker, rather than stuff him in it, but that he also genuinely seems like a nice dude. You can definitely hold some of that against the movie for not allowing for us to make our own opinion on him, but for what it’s worth, Poitras seems like she wasn’t trying hard to take away from Snowden’s point-of-view or any of the things he had to discuss. She lets him ramble on and on, even if amiably so, but it’s a side of the story that most of us want to hear and she doesn’t take away from that.

Which doesn’t just do Snowden himself justice, but the people who actually want to know more about this possible “superhero”.

Consensus: For the first-half, Citizenfour meanders, but once Edward Snowden enters the picture (literally and figuratively), what we get is an engaging, heartfelt and occasionally stirring look into the personality of a figure we should all know more about.

8 / 10 = Matinee!!

Grunge-reject, but it's okay. He's better now.

Grunge-reject, but it’s okay. He’s better now.

Photo’s Credit to: Goggle Images

Force Majeure (2014)

Don’t think I’ll need to visit the French Alps anytime soon. I prefer to be alive.

A Swedish family spends a week in the French Alps for what seems to be a relatively stress-free, enjoyable vacation, as most families want. One afternoon, however, that all seems to change. While the family’s out dining on a deck, they hear an avalanche pop, but they feel as if it is controlled enough that they don’t have to worry and possibly even run for their lives. Several seconds later, it looks as if the avalanche is not at all controlled, is heading straight for them, and leaves them all to do what they assume to be their final moments alive. Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) stays behind and shelters her two kids, whereas Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) runs away and never turns back. Well, turns out that the avalanche actually was controlled in the first place, but one that was just a tad too close to comfort for all of them. But now, Ebba is concerned about her husband, seeing as how he ran away from them all, rather than stay back and try to protect them in any way imaginable. This puts a lot of their relationship into perspective and, as a result, the vacation a lot more uncomfortable and tense.

Just another happy family on vacation.

Just another happy family on vacation.

It takes a lot for a movie to have me on the edge of my seat. I’m not saying that as some sort of brag; I’m saying that because after all of the movies I’ve seen over a the past decade or so, and realizing that many plot-threads are identical in almost every part of one movie’s nature, there’s only so much a movie can do that totally throws me for a loop and has me not knowing what to expect, where, why, or even how. Though there are many movies that can do this to me, they’re more than likely already crazy pieces of genre film that you expect to throw you for a loop, every so often. However, for a human-based drama to throw me off my game? Now that’s something new!

Not to mention, something I definitely welcome.

And that’s what I had here with Force Majeure, a movie that I didn’t expect to be more than just a family dealing with the aftermath of an avalanche. Although, technically, the movie is dealing with the aftermath of said avalanche, the way writer/director Ruben Östlund goes about exploring it as the movie runs along, is what’s so interesting and what, ultimately, threw me for a loop just about every step of the way I was willing to roll with this movie.

For instance, everything leading up to the actual avalanche itself is really simple, almost too much so. It paints this portrait of a normal, everyday family that seem like they need some time away from their lives at home and just want to sit back, relax and enjoy the slopes while they can. But when the avalanche comes rolling in, and all of a sudden, the family fears that their lives may be in full-danger, then it becomes clear that this is going to be a different kind of movie that isn’t as simple, or peeled-apart as you may think.

And speaking of that avalanche rolling down, it’s one of the more tense, hard-to-look-away from sequences that I’ve seen in something that wasn’t an action movie. Literally, it starts off nice and easy, and then all of a sudden, goes from 1 to 11 and already, you can feel that there’s death in the air. However, what Östlund does so well here is that he keeps the camera as still as humanly possible, without ever shifting around and making it seem like he wants us to feel the same excitement and intensity that these characters may be going through as well. He just keeps the camera right then and there, and allows for us to watch it as it’s happening; which, in turn, makes the sequence all the more terrifying, as we can see the avalanche coming in as plain as day, yet, there’s still nothing we can do about it.

Then, after that happens, Östlund takes down everywhere he can go with this family and it’s where the movie gets to become the most interesting, as well as the most unpredictable – something I didn’t expect.

What I mean by “unpredictable”, too, is to say that every scene starts off normal, as if you could tell what’s going to happen, where it’s going to end up, and what we, the audience, is going to learn more about once all is said and done with. By this, I don’t mean that people engage in constant gun-battles that end in hectic blazes of fire, blood and ammunition-shells; what I mean is that while you expect the scene to be just exposition, it turns into showing us more and more about this family, their dynamic together, and exactly what this terrifying event has done to them. Though Östlund makes the smart choice of picking any sides in the matter, nor does he make it at all clear where he is going to go with this story. This is where the characters come in and show that there’s more to this story, rather than just picking out who was in the wrong, and who was in the right. More or less, they’re all in the wrong; it’s just a matter of who is more so in the wrong than the other.

Just another couple of bros relaxing and having some brews.

Just another couple of bros relaxing and having some brews.

That’s if I’m making any sense whatsoever.

Like I was saying, though, Östlund paints each and everyone of these characters human beings; albeit, ones with plenty of emotion that they may not always be able to take control of. This is most evident in Ebba, but with good reason – not only does it seem like her and her husband haven’t been able to spend quality, loving-time together, now she finds out that he may not even have her, or their family’s best interests at heart. After this, she lashes out at him at random, sometimes inappropriate times and not only puts her hubby into an uncomfortable position, but those around them as well. It makes her, on the surface, seem like an annoying, emotional wreck that needs to either be put in the corner, or given a smack to wake her up and allow her to smell the cauliflower.

But she isn’t, and the same goes for Tomas, which makes the dilemma all the more rich and frustrating to answer for yourself. Except, when you look at the situation in his shoes and through his eyes, the decision is a lot more difficult to figure out: Would you try to save yourself from death, if that at all seemed plausible? Or, would you stay with the ones you supposedly love and tough it out regardless? They’re two roads you could take, which makes it all the more interesting to see not only how Tomas himself realizes this, and refuses to actually admit to it, and also by how he constantly gets it thrown back into his face by his wife who clearly knows his intentions. It all creates plenty food-for-thought and may, more than likely, remind you that even though your family loves you and supports you, they may not be there to save you from imminent death.

You know, happy thoughts.

Consensus: On the surface, Force Majeure seems like another simple family-drama, but is anything but with complex questions, and no easy answers whatsoever.

8.5 / 10 = Matinee!!

AND NOW THEY'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!! AHH!!

AND NOW THEY’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!! AHH!!

Photo’s Credit to: Goggle Images

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